Domestic Violence in the Fire Service


by Bill Bays
Fireman, Medical First Responder and Chaplain
Keyesport (IL) Fire Department

Bill-BaysFirefighters are rescuers. We like the adrenalin rush of a call, driving the big trucks through traffic with lights and siren calling upon everybody to get out-of-the-way. We like saving life and property. We like the feeling of being able to bring a big blaze under our control. Even simple things like directing traffic and bystanders carries with it the element of authority and control. We like the authority that being in charge brings and the idea that we are in control. These are not bad things, but instead, are essential in a crisis situation. The vast majority of those in our ranks are upstanding men and women who want to make a positive difference in the world and use the power they possess for the benefit of society. Sometimes though, these personality traits are used in wrong ways. Misuse of power and control is obviously not exclusive to firefighters, just the focus of this discussion.

It is common sense that certain occupations are more fertile breeding grounds than others for the abuse of power and control. The armed services, law enforcement and prison guards, firefighters and yes, even the clergy, are some occupations where it is reasonable to assume there is a high risk of individuals with power and control dysfunction. First, we know that there are no statistics to quantify the problem within these occupations. Secondly, power and control is accepted in such occupations and it’s exaggeration or abuse is often overlooked as a byproduct of the high stress factor of these jobs. But unfortunately, what is seen in public is often only the tip of the iceberg as to what happens in private at home. There are some built-in restraints out in society that abusers might not cross over because they like or need their jobs. But the home front is often more private and such misbehavior is empowered by secrecy.

Let us define our terms. This is generally (not exclusively) a male problem. Abuse of power and control in any setting, but especially within the family, is a learned behavior. It is NOT caused by PTSD, poor anger management skills, exhaustion, being drunk or high on something. It may be intensified by those elements, but this mistreatment of family members is NOT caused by them. Consider a firefighter named “John”. John saw something growing up. He saw his dad treat his mother with disrespect. He saw him continually call her everything in the book, but “stupid” and “worthless” were especially strong memories. He saw his dad slap her and push her around. He told her “she’d be nowhere without him to take care of her and tell her what to do”. He even remembers a time or two where the police had showed up only to find out that Mom had only “fallen down and bruised herself”. John’s dad was a well respected long time firefighter who enjoyed a few brews with the men and took good care of “the little woman”. Growing up, John was good at his violent video games and always got the extra points for knocking off the hooker. There were plenty of videos in his dad’s collection where the woman got what she deserved.

This beast of domestic violence lives and thrives in the darkness. It does not often come out of hiding and is resistant to seeking help. Just like we adopt a proactive approach to fire fighting, equipment maintenance and training, educating personnel about this problem cannot be reactive. Medical First Responders are taught to observe both the physical environment when they arrive on scene as well as the people that they encounter there. All firefighters are taught scene size up. It is because they might be going to something that is later determined to be a crime scene. In the same way, we must become adept at observing and hearing hints that deeper problems may exist when we see certain behaviors in our firefighters.

What behavior might be the tip of the iceberg to bigger problems? While firehouse complaining about officers or whomever is legendary, a little too much of that might be coming from a person who has no respect for authority other than himself. Do you really want to follow that firefighter into a burning building who genuinely disrespects the incident commander and his orders? Do you really want to sign your name to your First Responder medical report wherein he (your partner) decided on scene that “some things are not necessary”? Simply being aware that this is a real problem will generally cause the “radar” of an average person to stand at attention when a co-worker seems to continually disrespect authority.

Remember: cooperation, teamwork and submission to authority is critical in a crisis situation for the safety of everybody at the scene and those elements are held in secret derision by a person who abuses others for their own benefit. The appearance of brotherhood and teamwork will be only on the surface for this person. If he has no problem with hitting his wife and/or children, he would easily leave his nozzle partner behind in a burning building.

Domestic violence is a crime, not just a “bad attitude”. Divorce, substance abuse, failing health and many other personal issues can contribute to poor job performance. The one element that places this issue above all those is this word: Intent. A person with a history of DV is set against teamwork and any type of authority. Their skill at deliberately hiding what goes on behind closed doors is greater than we can imagine. These indicators reveal a person who has a problem that is never addressed by rest, time off or normal “anger management” counseling, but intensive group therapy specifically designed for abusers. Cooperation with a fire department disciplinary process will only be superficial and create a person who will now lay and wait for their opportunity for revenge.

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Firefighting is dangerous enough without working with a person who practices deception as a way of life. Falsifying equipment inspections, lying, and ignoring safety concerns would be no problem for abusers.

If you suspect that a fellow firefighter might be this type of person, contact others specifically skilled in this area for advice and assistance before you say or do anything. Do not assume your company commander is trained about this problem. If this is handled improperly, it will drive him into greater secrecy and endanger those already at risk. Consider these steps:

  • Remember your goal is that the abuser and victims get the help they need, not just get somebody fired. You are acting out of compassion and genuine concern for the whole department!
  • WRITE DOWN what you see, hear and think. Keep accurate notes.
  • Call the National Hotline for Domestic Violence (800-799-7233).
  • Ask County State’s Attorney’s Office for referral to the proper agencies, especially if the County has a Victim Advocate. Having personally worked with hundreds of families affected by abuse, experience and training in this specialized behavior is critical.
  • Call your local police department for advice, assistance and referral.
  • Find out about educational opportunities near you and research domestic violence on the internet.

About the Author: Bill Bays is a Fireman, Medical First Responder and Chaplain with the Keyesport (IL) Fire Department. He serves as Pastor of the Tamalco Christian Church and as a Victim Advocate for the Bond County (IL) State’s Attorney’s Office. Bill has been married to his wife, Betty, for 38 years and has three daughters. He holds a B.S. degree in Business from Greenville College.