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Sounding the Alarm on Stress: A Firefighter Family’s COVID-19 Survival Guide

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Pam Blawusch has been a therapist for over 18 years, married to a Fire Fighter for 28 years, and a former Fire Fighter herself. She brings experience and wisdom to this article. Having grown up in a First Responder family, her 22-year-old daughter, Calla, a graduate from University of Arizona, joined her Mom in sharing her insights and strategies that will help all of us continue to navigate these Pandemic days in front of us.

Sounding the Alarm on Stress: A Firefighter Family’s COVID-19 Survival Guide

by Pamela Blawusch, LMFT and Calla Blawusch

First responder families know a thing or two about flexibility. As the wife of a firefighter, a simple question such as “when will your husband be home?” is not always easy to answer. He could be off at the regular 7 am shift change, or there could be a late call that takes who knows how long. Depending on need, he could even be “forced” over for a consecutive 24-hour shift with zero notice. The job demands sacrifice not only from the first responder, but from the family as well. Stress management and adaptability are paramount for happy and healthy relationships within the family unit. It occurred to me that sharing some of the things I have learned over the past 28 years might be useful during the upheaval of COVID-19. When prolonged stress and uncertainty become the norm, strategies play a key role in managing family dynamics.

Understand rest time vs. leisure time

Firefighters have cycles of 24 hours on and off, with larger blocks of time off at the end of each cycle. One of the first things I learned is that days off between work shifts are very different from the blocks. Often people comment on how lucky my husband is to have time off during the week. What they fail to realize is this is recovery time not vacation. A busy 24-hour shift with little sleep can sap the fun and energy out of the next day. Days off come with their own ebbs, flows, and little decisions about what makes sense.

Part of this is understanding that all shifts are not created equal. It could be a slow day with few calls, and then along comes a call that doesn’t go well or is difficult, like a badly hurt child, which causes stress to ratchet up.

Because of this, I’ve learned to differentiate rest time versus leisure time. It’s important to validate your own need for recovery and “relax-time” during the pandemic, but also learn and respect what other members of your family need to manage stress in their own way. We all need more rest and recovery than usual, and we need to understand that some days will be more productive than others.

Communicate in a way that works

Because it’s impossible to know how a shift is going, keeping in touch and having good communication skills is critical. Stress and long absences are hard on relationships and families. Finding ways to connect on a regular basis is crucial. A funny photo, note of encouragement, or even a cute emoji goes a long way. Timing is also important. Mornings are busy for my firefighter engineer so I reach out around lunch or later. Anything that can wait until tomorrow waits.

Many people think good communication is constant communication. However, learning when to table a conversation or just simply let it go is equally important.

Fulfill basic needs first

This is a funny one. In my household, food is king. When my man comes off shift, it is like facing down a grizzly bear until he gets breakfast. His metabolism truly rivals my 19-year-old son. I can’t tell you how many fights we had before I figured this out. Fulfilling the need for good food and nourishment is the top priority. Beyond that, I have found that meals represent time for listening and re-alignment. It’s that ebb and flow again. In the morning, I am getting ramped up for the day and he is trying to decompress and recover. Food and conversation help us get on the same page. My point is, it is important to know what the “king” is for your family. Fulfill basic needs first, and find your own way to have a tranquil moment with your loved ones within the chaos.

Be mindful of media

While food tends to be a short-term emergency response, my long term strategy has to do with family time and how it is spent. Raising kids in a first responder family has evolved into a nice rhythm of what we do when dad is home and what we do when he is at work. Lighter entertainment is for when my husband is home--sports, comedy, nature shows. Killer zombies and intense thrillers are saved for when he is at work. It is important to be mindful of the media you are consuming during this stressful time. Try cutting down on news and violence, and substituting for something light and relaxing.

Focus on the positive

Finally, it is important to lean into positivity during this time. It helps with life and it especially helps during the pandemic. Sometimes my brain goes down a negative path of thinking about the risks and hazards for first responders. Instead, I try to focus on the end result of lives saved and how proud I am of my husband’s courage and dedication. When things get hard, I practice gratitude and small acts of kindness where I can, within my family and out in my community.

This mindset is so powerful right now, when it is easy to lose hope. I have been so touched by the stories of people doing exceptional things for each other and spreading positivity. I see this every week in my zoom meeting with the team at Coherence Associates, Inc. We are all clinicians dedicated to helping first responders and their families. We are also normal people who lean into each other for support, friendship, collaboration and a good laugh.

We are here to support our first responders, their partners and families. Please reach out if our counseling experience would benefit you or a loved one. Support, services, and compassion are a phone call away. And remember, we will all get through this together.

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