Fire Chiefs Need to Remember the 'Home Family' Too

Jan. 5, 2016
Patrick J. Kenny shares how fire chiefs can include a firefighter’s family in their department functions.

Editor's note: Chief Patrick J. Kenny will be presenting "Mayday for Mental Health Abstract" on Feb. 3, 2016 at Firehouse World in San Diego. He will also participate in the "Moderated Panel - Firefighter Health & Wellness – Career/Life Longevity" discussion on Feb. 3.

Ever hear a firefighter complain about the new generation in regards to the lack of volunteerism and "family" concept? Too busy being by themselves in cubicles with their electronic devices? "I remember the good old days when we would go off duty and leave to go straight to Joe's house to put on a new roof. Now everybody goes home. Don't give a damn about their other family." 

The term family is used pretty loosely around the fire service to indicate many different things. Your firehouse "family," your birth "family," or your community "family." All are accurate, but I believe as a service we fail one of those families more often than not. That is the firefighter’s family at home. 

I recently took over a small, paid-on-call department after having been the chief of a predominantly career department for over 14 years. While the makeup is quite different, the challenges to include the "birth family" in your department mission are identical. So let’s start with how as the leader do you make this engagement a priority and identify strategies to reach that goal. 

First and foremost, realize that your number one priority is the firefighter's blood family. When do you make that position clear to all involved? Right at the orientation. I have witnessed too many departments where orientations have become a formality with no real goals defined. 

Your primary goal at an orientation, as it relates to their family, should be to let prospective candidates and their families (yes they need to be invited) know what you expect from them as well as what you will give them in return. This goes way beyond turnout gear and training along with a weekly paycheck.

Here is your chance, if you really believe that a firefighter's calling goes beyond their shift or call-back to include helping with a fellow firefighter's home repairs, shoveling a driveway for somebody's mom  or checking on a leaky water heater for a spouse whose significant other is on duty; it's your opportunity to clearly say so. Don't assume the candidate or their family knows that is an expectation they are signing up for. We sometimes act like we hire psychics, then we get angry and resentful when they don't read our mind and step up to do the "extra."

What's the worst that can happen with this approach? Either the candidate or their family says; "Oh no. That's not what I thought I was signing up for!" At that point, they move on to another department that doesn't share the same values you have adopted and it saves all involved loads of headaches down the way.

On the other side of the coin, if the candidates and their families sign up to be part of that program, then you, as the leader, can ask for the various firefighter family support activities to be under taken.

However, before you ask for their commitment, you first need to foster that commitment through your own actions. Your people must know you care about them and their families.

Okay, you may ask what are some ways I can do that? Use the old keep it simple Simon (KISS) method. Get your families involved right away. Once their spouses/significant others are offered positions, have a quick cake and coffee for them and their families. Tell that at that time they are all now part of your fire department family. Tell them how much you appreciate the family sharing their mom or dad with you and your department. Give them all the "family" patch, your department patch, to proudly display at home in the window so the neighbors all know this is a firefighter's family home. 

Inform family members that when they are in trouble and their firefighter is away and there's no one else to call, they can call a dedicated phone number your department has established and they'll get their firefighter the message. If that's not possible, someone will provide help when needed.

Let them know their loved one will be challenged by some difficult experiences along the way, but that you have help in place. Tell them about the employee assistance program (EAP), peer support program, chaplain, and other programs are not just for firefighter but for the family too.

When their academy training is successfully completed, who pins the badge on the candidate when they come off probation? The family should! Take loads of family pictures at the event. Don't let a formal ceremony ruin a family moment that can only be captured in that second, not recreated later.

Once they are on the department, what's next? Catch them doing good things and then, to the chagrin of the firefighter, document it and send it home addressed to the family. Do not give it to the firefighter directly because it will almost certainly end up in the  the circular file! 

A card or short note in letter form will do. If you get evaluations from your public, and one catches your eye include that. It does not have to be a heroic rescue, but maybe an act of kindness on an activated fire alarm.  In a career organization, have a "date night" where you invite couples to come for a quick pizza dinner and short program, and then send them on their way to enjoy the rest of the night. You might consider having a babysitter in place as another option.

Significant others can get lost. So, if you have drill nights in a volunteer or paid-on-call department, designate one as a "spouse/significant others" drill. The firefighter gets credit if their spouse attends as if they were there. In return, the firefighter is expected to stay home with their family! 

You might question is what in the heck kind of programs does one conduct for a drill like? Try telling the family what you do to protect their loved ones so they go home. Make the correlation for them about how attendance at training, all those nights away from home, equates to safe returns to the family of their loved one and watch how drill attendance goes up. Invite your EAP representative or chaplain to give 15 minute talks on how they can be reached in an emergency and what, specifically, they can offer family members. Include a translation session where you fill them in on all our jargon. You would be surprised what some spouses think some of those acronyms are slang for. 

At one such drill, after a 30-minute program on the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, I asked a room of about 30 significant others, both male and female, to just introduce themselves and briefly describe their families along with naming the number one challenge of living with a firefighter. I figured 20 minutes for this and I then I would be moving on. Ninety minutes later, I had to send them home! I got the hint and the following year made sure there was a social component at the end, off-site, for this kind of sharing.

What about the little ones whose dad and mom miss birthdays, recitals or games growing up? How about sending birthday cards to the kids from the chief, from age 1 through whatever age you decide to send them. Yes, it takes a bit of time to load all those dates in your computer but, once completed, it can be the best part of a crummy day for me.

Oh, make sure to send one to the spouses too (no ages, please) as they are the ones left to explain to the child why their firefighter is gone. Always end it with thanks for sharing your mom/dad with us.

I realize, in large career organizations, some of these suggestions are not as practical and will not work. So be creative and invent your own family recognition plan. It doesn't have to be complicated or cost a lot of money. 

Now, if prioritizing your firefighters' families as part of your core mission sounds too corny for you because its in the  "not my style" category, then delegate it to someone who can do it for you. If you don't see a value in this, then simply get out of a leadership position as quickly as you can.

My theory is that today's fire service leaders have to spend more time and effort showing their people they care about their firefighters and their families than ever before. Effective leadership is exhausting. It takes a lot of time and a conscious commitment. Identify a successful department with good overall morale, and I'll show you leadership at all levels who values the families of their firefighters. My challenge to you is to make yours one of those successful departments.

PATRICK J. KENNY has been a member of the fire service for over 32 years, currently serving as the fire chief in Western Springs, Ill. Chief Kenny serves as a member of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Promotional Assessment Board and is a past president of the Illinois Fire Chief's Association.

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