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  • Writer's pictureRachelle Zemlok, PsyD


A “What to Expect" for significant others that departments can provide to families at the beginning of the academy. Please feel free to print out (while making sure to give the author… ME… credit). Thanks!

You may have proofread applications, helped practice interview skills, calmed nerves when necessary, were a listening ear through all the frustrations, or maybe you provided support by making sure meals and laundry were always taken care of. No matter how you were involved in this process, you began to see how your significant other’s involvement in the department is a family affair. It takes up so much emotional energy and physical time, and it is hard for those in close supporting roles not to be impacted and involved. The academy will drive this point home… prepare yourselves.


I’m going to give it to you straight. The Academy may be one of the hardest things your family goes through and will take a large toll on all. There is no sugar coating this process. Though a job offer was made, it’s not permanent… more like an opportunity to prove worthiness. A recruit will have many tests to pass in the academy and can be “let go” at any point along the way based on performance. This can be extremely stressful for the recruit and his or her family. Fortunately, the academy is for a limited time. I have heard of academies that last anywhere from 12 to 20 weeks. The amount of stress experienced within that time frame is extreme compared to afterward.

The aimed purpose of any academy is to provide necessary training in skills for the job. Academies can also gauge how well certain personalities fit into the department’s culture, judge an individual’s work ethic, and help recruits accept one another as individuals to be bonded with and counted on.

Recruits often have little time and energy to manage other aspects of life. When you add in a commute, the studying, and meal prepping... Like I said… it’s going to be a family affair. Your recruit is going to need your unconditional love and support more than ever.


I had the pleasure of speaking with a 28-year veteran Captain who ran a fire academy for 11 graduating classes. He told me that his advice to the spouses and family members was that their recruits were going to be coming home tired, sore, hurting, and unconfident about whether or not they were going to be successful in the academy. He explained to the family members that he was going to need them to console the recruits, be supportive, reassure them, feed them, hydrate them, give them anti-inflammatories, and send them back each day.


He emphasized that it is okay for the recruits to not be doing well, but highlighted the fact that it is NEVER okay for family members to call in and complain about what their recruit is going through. He then explained that it was his job to make sure they keep coming home for the next 30 years. My understanding of this is that every part of his academy was extremely well thought out and had a purpose aimed at making recruits good at their job and ones who were going to keep themselves and their brothers and sisters out of danger throughout the rest of their careers. And my sense was that he definitely did not accomplish this by making them feel secure in their academy.


For the sake of your relationship try to do these thing before the academy starts:

  1. DISCUSS what you both foresee being difficult and how committed you both are to getting through this time (team work!).

  2. PLAN how things will be accomplished (ex. chores around the home, childcare, etc.)

  3. ENGAGE SUPPORT contact family and friends and discuss with them how you will exactly need their help and when

  4. KEEP THE END IN SIGHT Remind yourselves why it is important to your family and what it is going to bring. Mark the final day on a calendar, and have a countdown system so you won’t lose sight


We can only handle so much stress at a time, and when we are under a significant amount of stress, we tend to have less patience and ability to console others. As we all know, emotional conversations in serious relationships take a lot of patience and consideration, and I’d prefer a couple not attempt to work through emotional issues when both of their fuses are so short.

If your spouse is usually the one you confide in during challenging or difficult times, do your best to have a best friend or family member to confide in during the academy. If it is related to the academy itself and you feel like no one else will understand, then absolutely try and connect with other spouses going through the academy, because I imagine they are experiencing similar feelings. This isn't to say you cannot talk to your spouse about any of it. Your spouse will absolutely want to know how you are doing, but having someone give you more time and consoling will allow you to gather your thoughts enough to be able to update your spouse on where you are at, versus requiring them to fix what is bothering you. If you think they are the only one who can fix it, then I suggest you confide in someone else to refine what you would like to say, then let your spouse know your general experience. You can then follow that up with agreeing to get through the academy the best you can as long as you both commit to doing some damage control the week after you celebrate graduation.

Dr. Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist located in California that specializes in supporting and treating first responder families. You can get in contact with her or find more helpful information for spouses at
Dr. Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist located in California that specializes in supporting and treating first responder families. You can get in contact with her or find more helpful information for spouses at

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