Remember the Family

By Chief Patrick J. Kenny

Ever hear a firefighter complain about the new generation in regard 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 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 No. 1 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 others 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 which point, they move on to another department who 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 candidate and their family sign up to be part of that program, then you as the leader can ask for the various firefighter family support activities to be undertaken.

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. OK, 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 spouse/significant other is offered the position, have a quick cake and coffee for that firefighter as well as their families. Tell them 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 them when they are in trouble, and their significant other is away, that there is a dedicated phone number they can call to reach that person or to get help.

Let them know their loved one will be challenged by some difficult experiences along the way but that you have help in place (Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Peer Support Program, Chaplain, etc.) 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 in the department what 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 or it’s in 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.

Organize a “date night” where you invite couples to come to a quick pizza dinner, short program and then send them on their way to enjoy the rest of the night, perhaps with a babysitter in place.

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. The firefighter is expected to stay home with their family!

Next question is what in the heck kind of programs do you put on at a drill like that? 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 speak for 15 minutes about 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 to just introduce themselves. I also asked them to briefly describe their families along with naming the No. 1 challenge of living with a firefighter. I figured 20 minutes for this and I was moving on. About 90 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? 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, and make sure to send one to the spouses too, as they are the ones left to explain to the child why their firefighter parent 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 firefighter’s families as part of your core mission sounds too corny for you because that’s “not my style,” then delegate it to someone who can! 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 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 that values the families of their firefighters. My challenge to you is to make your department one of those successful departments.

Patrick Kenny has been a member of the fire service for more than 30 years, currently serving as the fire Chief in Western Springs, Ill. Chief Kenny is a member of the Illinois Fire Chief’s Promotional Assessment Board, Illinois Fire Chief’s Educational Foundation and Illinois Fire Chiefs Association. Chief Kenny is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, Illinois Fire Service Institute and Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. He has twice been recognized with the Fire Prevention Achievement Award by the Illinois Fire Inspector’s Association as well as the Richard Arthur Lifetime Achievement Award. He was recognized by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association as “Fire Chief of the Year” in 2004 and was nominated for the same award by Fire Chief Magazine for the International Fire Chiefs that same year.