4 Reasons First Responders Need to Expand Their Identity Beyond Their Job


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen

As a spouse you can see that being a first responder can be an all consuming role. Oftentimes it is a career that your spouse feels called to do, they want to help others, they want to make a positive impact. When given the opportunity they set forth to be the best and most respected first responder they can be. Not just because they are excited, but because these are often individuals that approach goals with 100% effort. One of the very reasons we respect and love them. You wouldn’t expect less of them. This means they work more hours, take on more responsibilities, sign up for more training, get alerted about what’s going on at work when they are not there, and consume media and other materials related to work even when off duty. To their credit, this is the approach that makes a very well respected and great first responder! Unfortunately, first responders that overly invest themselves in the job can actually be the most vulnerable to burnout and negative impacts later on. The answer… more balance and interests, passions, and relationships outside the first responder lifestyle.


  1. A BALANCED LIFE CAN FIGHT BURNOUT All first responders will benefit and increase their ability to avoid burnout and other negative impacts of the career if they place as much importance and passion into their personal roles that they do into their professional ones. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (retired police officer and behavioral scientist) likes to refer to the “I Usta” syndrome. When police officers first start a career he finds they have many friends, hobbies, they are active and have personal goals. Then slowly as they start to invest more into the career, and fall victim to the fatigue off duty, they start investing less into their personal life. Their identity too often narrows down to I Usta fish, I Usta workout, I Usta go out with friends, I Usta go camping etc. He thinks that “Learning the skills to balance the police role with investment in the personal life roles is what defines a survivor.” This is true for all first responders!

  2. THEY HAVE LITTLE CONTROL OVER THE JOB: First responders often have very little control at work… changing the system, how people view them, promotions, special assignments, department politics, policies, leadership, the result of medical calls, people hurting other people and breaking laws… the list goes on. Dr. Gilmatin makes the point that “If the job becomes your life, and you don’t control your job, then you don’t control your life.” (Dr. Gilmartin Pg. 81) When an individual over invests in any one role, and especially if they have very little control over that role, they make themselves extremely vulnerable.

  3. THE END OF THE FIRST RESPONDER BONDS: The bond first responders share is like no other. The things they go through and see together help them feel understood and often distant from others. It’s common to slowly see their friend group narrow down to only other cops or firefighters. This often leads to a loss of other long term friendships they once had. The flip side of that, it’s commonly reported that those solid first responder relationships too quickly disappear when an individual is no longer a part of the day to day of the department due to leave, injuries, early retirements etc. The circle they surround themselves with can often be a false sense of security because we don’t know what next shift brings. Do they have other relationships to fall back on that they still invest in?

  4. RETIREMENT CAN BE HARD:  You might be thinking 50 years old or older when I say retirement. However, like any profession that is so physically and emotionally taxing, early retirements are common due to unforeseen circumstances. Do they have other hobbies, skills, relationships that they will be able to lean on if that’s the case for them? What will they do next? Will they feel lost? People also underestimate the significant life adjustment at the end of a full career. We are only left with our personal life when our career ends. If your first responder has only ever invested in the job for the last 30 years, what’s left when they’re suddenly no longer needed by the department and when those strong family bonds they shared with colleagues disappear?

Joel Fay (Retired police officer, founding member of First Responder Support Network and lead clinician at West Coast Post Trauma Retreat) was quoted stating “As I stood there an image came to mind, that of a roof being supported by a single pillar. If that one pillar were removed the entire roof would collapse. But I had a lot of pillars in my life besides work. I had friends, family, volunteer work, sports, and many other interests. I could afford to lose this one pillar. At that moment I knew I was going to be OK.

Will your spouse be able to afford to lose that pillar? If your answer is “No,” consider what it is they would have to do to slowly make their way back. What hobbies, relationships, activities were important to them prior to the job? Is there a way the family schedule can allow time for some of those? You can nicely explain you’ve noticed a shift and would like to support them finding time for that hobby or activity, or plan something you can both do together. Set a long term goal you can both work towards like a race or other event that will challenge you to make time for it. Remind them to call that friend they haven’t seen in awhile. I know they work a ton of hours, schedules are crazy, and it’s hard to plan things in advance… can you find a way you can still book that camping trip or vacation you used to take? Maybe you have to book it on two different weekends in case the first one gets ruined by work. Maybe you have things prepared to leave town immediately for a last minute trip as soon as you do find a couple days. It’s not going to be easy, but finding time for people and activities not related to work will benefit your first responder and your whole family in the end.

About Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in working with first responder families and supporting parents with children diagnosed with ADHD or pose behavioral challenges. Dr. Zemlok is also a Cordico Advisory Board member.  For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website at https://www.firstresponderfamilypsychology.com/