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FRI 2022 Quick Take: Worried about retention? Invest in the EMS family

Clinical psychologist Rachelle Zemlok, a firefighter spouse, emphasizes the role first responder families play in career decisions

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Dr. Rachelle Zemlok, clinical psychologist and strategic wellness director for Lexipol, presents at Fire-Rescue International 2022.

Photo/Rachel Engel

Note: Watch Dr. Zemlok’s full presentation below.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — If there’s one thing Dr. Rachelle Zemlok wanted EMS/fire service leaders to take away from her keynote speech during Thursday’s general session at IAFC’s Fire-Rescue International, it was this: mental health and retention starts at home.

Dr. Zemlok, a clinical psychologist and director of wellness at Lexipol, works with first responder spouses to provide mental health support for the issues unique to their families. In her practice, she often hears about the struggles spouses face when it comes to raising a family and grappling with the unexpected ways the fire/EMS service impacts their lives.

As a firefighter spouse herself, Zemlok understands the frustration of her clients, because she has felt it, too. The answer, she says, starts at the station.

Read the top takeaways from Zemlok’s session and leave your thoughts in the comments.

quotes from Zemlok

You (fire leaders) and me (firefighter spouses)? We’re connected.”

Many firefighter families are completely isolated from other firefighter families and completely isolated from the department. Some spouses have no idea what goes on at the station and why it impacts the home life.”

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Rachelle Zemlok, clinical psychologist and strategic director of wellness at Lexipol, presents at Fire-Rescue International 2022.

Photo/Rachel Engel

Top takeaways

1. Why the family matters

  • Many firefighters and EMTs early in their careers have families with young children, which can be difficult to juggle with work schedules and overtime shifts, particularly as the recruitment and retention challenges continue.
  • Millennials, with an age range of 22-40, crave a work-life balance. In the era of the Great Resignation, when recruiters are looking for quality people to fill roles, many will leave for opportunities that allow them more flexibility to be at home.
  • A happy home life is a happy station life. If a firefighter or paramedic is not focused on issues at home, such as a fight with a spouse about yet another overtime shift, they are able to be more mentally available and in the right mindset on duty.

2. The military has “been there, done that” when it comes to member retention.

  • The Department of Defense faced a similar dilemma with service member retention due to military families not feeling supported, which ultimately led to many active-duty troops leaving the service.
  • In the early 2000s, the DoD invested in research to understand the challenges families were facing that was leading to troops leaving the service, and began implementing programs that supported spouses with mental health concerns, career development and child care.

3. What can fire/EMS departments do to support families?

  • Listen to the concerns of spouses and what their families need. Even if there is nothing that can be changed, just giving families the opportunity to share their struggles is helpful, Zemlok said.
  • Acknowledge the difficulties fire/EMS families face and that the health and well-being of firefighters and paramedics starts at home.

Bottom line? Families matter

Both fire/EMS leadership and spouses want the same thing — for the members to feel supported, understood and like their mental wellness matters. When spouses are looped into what’s impacting their spouse, they can better understand and recognize the symptoms of mental distress, such as a short temper, irritability and lack of patience. When spouses feel supported by the department and that their concerns are being heard, they are more likely to support the first responder in career longevity.

Watch Dr. Zemlok’s full presentation here.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.

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