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Firefighting and What It Means to Put Family First

Ethan Vizitei

So here are a few things I think about on a frequent basis to try to keep me balanced:

There will always be another one

Whether it’s a big call, an exciting training opportunity, or a chance to teach or lead, another one will always come along. It can breed a lot of hard feelings if you ditch out on every dinner, recital, and ball game with the excuse of “I might not get another chance to do this.” Life is full of opportunities, and most of them are recurring. Your department will have another big fire. Someone else will fall out of their boat and need rescue. There’s no such thing as a training course that’s only taught once. But you know what you will truly only get one chance at?  Dinner after your kid’s first day of school. Your daughter’s first dance recital. The third-grade field-trip to the zoo. Those things you really only get one chance at, and I doubt there’s anyone on his or her death bed who wishes he had gone to just one more fire.  

People don’t hate what they’re a part of

A lot of hard feelings can be had if your family feels that you are separate from them when you’re with the fire department. Let me give you two scenarios. Firefighter A spends 50-60 hours a week working and training. His family doesn’t know anyone else on the department, they just hear the occasional story from time to time and imagine a group of large burly men with mustaches. They’ve never seen the inside of a fire-station, or been to a department function. All they know is that he’s gone a lot doing exciting things. Firefighter B also spends a lot of time at the fire department. Sometimes on his off day, he takes his kids into the station to see the engine. His wife has met and is friends with every other firefighter on his shift, and each of their wives/husbands. They sometimes trade off babysitting for each other’s kids. Every year the whole family goes to the Christmas party, and last Christmas when dad was working, mom and the kids brought the presents into the station and they invited the other guys on that shift over for one-day-late Christmas dinner.

This should be an easy one to understand. It’s easy to grow to resent a faceless organization who takes all mom or dad’s time, but when the family is part of the department, and vice-versa, the sacrifices seem less damaging. In fact, families tend to become supportive and proud of their busy breadwinner.

Commitments are firm, and they work both ways

Have you ever had one of those days where you said you were going to staff the station this Thanksgiving, and then someone says “well my aunt is coming into town this year and it would be really great if you could get out of that,” and you had to give them the talk about how somebody has to be on duty on holidays, and this time around you said you would do it? Well, you did the right thing. You made a commitment, and when challenged, you stood up and said “I’m sorry, but I said I was going to do this and a man’s only as good as his word.” Good for you.

Now, what if you were planning on taking the kids camping this memorial day and last minute somebody calls you and says “Hey, we’ve got a great swift-water rescue class happening this weekend, and there’s still a slot left, you in?” Don’t get too down if your first instinct is to jump at the opportunity because, hey, we could go camping any time, right? 

I’m tempted to feel the same way. But what’s true of the fire service is true of your family: if you say you’re going to do something, you have to mean it, and you don’t get to be choosy about when you’re going to honor that ideal and when you aren’t. Is duty important? Absolutely, it’s one of the key measures of a firefighter. And it holds the same value no matter who that duty is owed to. 

Everybody want’s to be good at their job. You want to pull your own weight, you want to be useful, you want to be seen by your peers as skilled and willing and able. Those are all very good things; never lose them. But consider what kind of career you’ll have if your family isn’t behind you. I’ll tell you what I’ve realized this week: there are many people in the community who have needed me as an EMT, and some who have needed me as a firefighter, but there’s only one person in the world who needs me as a dad.