Ellen Kirschman has been a public safety psychologist for over thirty years. She has also written several books that includes I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know and I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Knows. We recently chatted with Ellen to learn more about her work and ask what advice she had for first responders.
Ellen, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
ELLEN KIRSCHMAN: I’ve been a police and public safety psychologist for over 30 years. I’m the happy winner of the California Psychological Association’s 2014 Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology. My work has taken me to four countries and 22 states. I’m the author of five books. I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know written with Mark Kamena and Joel Fay, both of whom are psychologists and retired cops. Burying Ben was my first foray into mystery writing, followed by The Right Wrong Thing. My protagonist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, is also a psychologist. She’s a bit thinner and younger than I am and gets herself into way more trouble than I ever did. Currently, I spend my time writing, teaching peer support and self-care for first responders, holding workshops for first responder families and volunteering as a clinician at the First Responders Support Network (FRSN.org). More about that later. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband who is a photographer and a retired remodeling contractor. And near to my brother who was a volunteer fire fighter for sixteen years. You can reach me at www.ellenkirschman.com.
What drew you into the world of police and public safety psychology?
ELLEN: I’m a late bloomer and have worked a lot of jobs in my life. The story of how working in a tawdry dance hall in New York’s Times Square led to my becoming a police psychologist can be found on my blog. Look for the piece titled “The Majestic Ballroom (3/2/16).” After an unsuccessful try at being an actress I moved to California, got my Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work and began working at an outpatient psychiatric clinic. Several of my clients were married to cops who were struggling with depression, nightmares, post-traumatic stress, angry outbursts, and alcoholism. These women needed help and there was none available. I decided to start a support group for police wives and the response was so overwhelmingly positive it drove me back to school for my doctorate. I Love a Cop was my first book. It has since sold over 100,000 copies and become the “Bible” for police families. I started writing I Love a Fire Fighter after the tragic events of 9/11. The specter of more terrorist acts was creating a lot of fear in the first responder community. Fire service families were now burdened with new unthinkable fears -chemical weapons, hazardous materials, and major casualty incidents.
Tell us how you got into writing and how the idea for your first book came about?
ELLEN: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t get to it until pretty late in life. It was many years after practicing psychotherapy and consulting to police and fire departments before I started writing seriously. I began writing mysteries some years after that.
You have written two books that help the families of firefighters and cops called “I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know” and “I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know.” What prompted the idea for these books?
ELLEN: If you think it’s hard being a first responder, try being married to one! First responder work spills over to the family in many ways. When I started writing for families there was little acknowledgement that families were significantly affected by the job. First responders had all the training they needed, but no one thought to provide training to families on the most basic levels. How to deal with shift work, for example, or fear of being alone at night. Where to go for help when you’re feeling overburdened with childcare or domestic responsibility? What to do when your spouse has nightmares or changes in ways that you didn’t anticipate? Families are the bedrock of the first responder culture. They hold down the fort, even while holding their own jobs. They are not unpaid assistants to the fire department.
What is the biggest difference between families of cops and those of firefighters when it comes to the issues that they have to deal with—or is there any difference at all?
ELLEN: I think there is significant differences as well as similarities. For one thing, fire fighters are society’s heroes while cops are frequently regarded with suspicion or hostility. Most people are happy when firefighters arrive on scene, not so much if you’re a cop. Rarely will a citizen lie to a firefighter. They lie to cops all the time. Police work is about control; control of situations, control of people and control of one’s emotional reactions. Firefighters must control their emotions too, but their main mandate is providing help through fire suppression and emergency medical care. As a result, law enforcement families experience more scrutiny, more negative press and a more critical public. On the other hand, firefighters and cops both work in bureaucratic and political systems that create stress far in excess of line of duty stress. Both are exposed to tragedy and trauma and both face potential dangers on the job.
Working conditions differ as well. Cops work alone or with a partner, whereas firefighters work as a team and often live together in the fire house. Twenty-four hour shifts provide firefighters with close companions and support, but they are hard on the family. Finally, and this is my observation, nothing scientific, firefighters seem to like their jobs more than cops like theirs. Probably because cops deal with so much negativity. They see people at their worst.
In your book “I Love a Firefighter” you mentioned that you actually went to fire school. Tell us a little bit about that experience and what you learned from it.
ELLEN: I learned how much I didn’t know. For example when I suited up for a flashover I had no idea it would be pitch black inside and that I could barely see, hear or feel anything in the dark. I’d seen the movie the “Backdraft” hadn’t I? As soon as I crawled out of the training tower I called my brother, the firefighter. “Why didn’t you tell me it was dark inside a fire scene?” His response? “I thought everyone knew that.” This is the reason firefighter families need a book written for them. They don’t understand fire science or what a firefighter does every day and why. While they don’t need to go through a fire academy, (even a short, media academy like I did) they do need some elementary understanding about how the fire service operates and why firefighters act the way they do, on and off the job. It helps to understand why your EMT/Paramedic spouse supposedly sleeps all night at the station, but is still tired at home. What’s with all these fire house pranks? Why won’t my spouse rent a hotel room on the top floor? How come when we’re out shopping, he or she is looking at everything but what we came to buy?
I also realized how little of fire training involves learning to manage stress and trauma. I had millions of unanswered questions. How you feel when you fail to resuscitate a child? When you lose a fire? When you know the victim? What do you tell your family when you almost fell through a roof and you’re having nightmares about it for weeks? How do support each other and yourself when a co-worker dies or is seriously injured. When do you ask for professional help? I think all of these things and more are as essential to fire fighter as is personal protective equipment and SCBA gear. In fact, learning how to manage your emotions is a form of personal protective equipment. Finally, I learned I haven’t the guts or the stamina to do what firefighters do. Plus I look a lot like Paddington Bear in turnouts.
When you interviewed firefighters, what were some of the themes that came up repeatedly?
ELLEN: Bureaucratic stress is a big issue. It ranges from dealing with incompetent or uncaring management to having to go door to door to convince the public that funds are needed for essential equipment or a modern fire station. Changes in retirement systems create a lot of anxiety and anger. Promotions and conflicts with supervisor are frequent complaints. Families talked to me about the challenges of shift work, feeling they shouldered an unfair proportion of the childcare and domestic duties. They worried about their loved ones being hurt or killed. Some were worried that the presence of more women in the fire service would lead to infidelity. Women firefighters, as expected, were concerned about being accepted as competent co-workers. Sexual harassment and discrimination were an on-going challenge for them.
Out of all the families and firefighters you interviewed for the book—which one(s) stood out to you the most?
ELLEN: I finished I Love a Fire Fighter twelve years ago. The people that stand out most in my memory are those I have met since, all of them suffering with untreated post-traumatic stress injuries. I have talked to first responders who were damaged by the overwhelming loss of life at the Oklahoma City bombing. Counseled wild land fire fighters who stood by helplessly listening to their colleagues die in agony. I have met some who were destroying their lives and their marriages by medicating themselves with alcohol. Or turning their symptoms into rage against their families. I get letters and email from spouses who are begging their mates to get help and don’t know where to find it. Their relationships on the brink of disaster and their entire lives held hostage by untreated trauma. I meet these people at the First Responders Support Network, an all-volunteer organization that sponsors retreats for first responders (West Coast Post Trauma Retreat) and their families (Significant Others and Spouses retreat). Peer supporters (cops and firefighters who have been through a retreat), culturally competent clinicians and chaplains work as a team. Sometimes our clients have a recent traumatic event. More common are clients whose event is only the last in a long series of micro-traumas and cumulative stress. For more information go to FRSN.ORG.
What advice would you give to a new firefighter who is just starting a family?
ELLEN: You have two families, your work family and your real family. This is both a blessing and a burden. You will need both, so you will have to treat both with equal attention. Talk to your real family. Tell them what’s going on with you. If you don’t they are going to think they are the problem. Talk about when, where, and how to discuss difficult things before they become a crisis. You don’t have to choose between telling all or saying nothing. What your family most wants to know is what’s going on with you. Did you walk in the door with that “face” because you’ve had a tough day or are you mad at them? Talking about your emotions is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you are accessible and human.
Don’t fall for myth that only another firefighter will understand you. Know the signs of stress and don’t wait to get help. It’s easier, faster and safer to put out flames in the wastebasket than to attack a fully involved structure fire.
Lastly, why should people check out these books and what can they gain from it?
ELLEN: Think of my books as an academy for spouses and significant others. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they wished they had books like these when they were starting out. Think of my books as enlightened self-interest. The more your spouse understands your job, the more he or she will be supportive.