Disarming Your Irritable Sleep Deprived Firefighter

by | Communication, Everyday, Firefighter Marriage, Top Posts

The sun is rising.  You’re freshly showered.  The little ones are all rumpled and still warm to the touch after climbing out of bed.  Your cell phone rings and it’s your firefighter.

Your smile grows bigger because this means he’s made it safely through another night on shift and you’re eager to talk to him.

But then you hear his voice.   And you immediately know what kind of night he had.  You can hear the wrong-ness of life in every word.  That bad night has spilled over into our normal day.  Traffic stinks.  Someone looked at him the wrong way getting off shift.  I didn’t answer the phone with my full attention.

Patience runs thin and little irritants become big problems for a sleep-deprived firefighter.

This week it was a rough night on the medic.  One that started with a midnight run on a 70-something woman in cardiac arrest but who was too far gone for them to save.  And from there 2 – 3 more ups and downs for runs that just don’t seem worthy of being woken up in the middle of the night as an emergency.   A woman with diarrhea whose paid home health caretaker is just exhausted from caring for her and wants them to take her to the hospital instead.   Someone who has had a toothache for 3 days and decides 4 am is the time they NEED to go to the hospital for it.  (The fire department can solve anything right?)

I can get angry just thinking of these people who are stealing my husband’s sleeping hours for their needs in exchange for his awake daylight hours with our family.

Then my heart softens thinking of people who have no one.  No family.  Living on limited incomes.  Sometimes medical providers are their only human touch.  And my hubby is good at it.  Even in the middle of the night, I can imagine him sweetly serving a little old lady in need.  (Ok….if he’s really a grump, no one tell me.  I want to keep that sweet vision in my head!)

Once my head cycles through these thoughts in like 3 seconds, I immediately go into nurturing role.  What can I say?  How can I help him?  What are the right words for this moment?  Lord give me the words.  I rehearse the 293 other times we’ve had this exchange for what worked and what didn’t.

Sometimes he comes around and his groggy voice tells me he loves me.  Can’t wait to get home and see the kids before the bus comes.  And reminds us both out loud how blessed we are for his job and the life and health we have.

Sometimes he says irrational things that sleep-deprived people say.  

I know, I’ve said them in those early weeks with a newborn being up at all hours of the night. They usually start with “I swear on my grandmother’s grave I will NEVER EVER EVER AGAIN ______(fill in the blank)____________.   I am done with it.  That’s the last time.”

Sometimes we hang up and he’s still in a major fog and negative funk.   And I need to put on my happy face and get into the office to start my day (because often these conversations happen while I’m driving to work.)  An office where everyone slept through the night and none of us are ever going to review enough charts and data to compete with a task like saving someone from cardiac arrest.

It’s at this point we have a choice on how we are going to react.

Yes, it hurts like mad when someone we love so much is hurting.   And I have had days when after conversations like this I’d have an ugly feeling in my gut that I just couldn’t shake.  Something good would happen and I’d laugh but then I’d have this dark shadow feeling and remind myself, oh yeah, my husband is hurting today.  I wonder what he’s doing. Is he ok?  Are the kids ok with Daddy in this mood?   I need to get home so I can talk to him.  I need to get home.   My head is not in this game at the office.  I need to talk to him.

When we marry the love of our life, two do become one. 

His pains become your pains.   Your joys become his joys.  And we carry those emotions with us.   But its a tricky walk to take with compassion.  It likes to lead us down the “woe are we” path together.

I’m telling you now if you go down the doom and gloom path with him, you’re never going to help him out of that funk.

I can’t tell you exactly what to say.  Honestly, I still don’t know.  11 years together and it seems like there’s always a new situation in our marriage I need to learn to communicate through.  But I can tell you that things got a whole lot better when I dealt with my own junk and stayed strong.



#1 Don’t mistake his tired grumpiness for being irritated at you and get all defensive or worried about what you are not doing right in your marriage.

Nothing is worse than one out-of-whack person trying to communicate with someone else who has turned it into their problem.   Follow that?   Just because he’s grumpy and projecting it at you, doesn’t mean the sky is falling and he wants to divorce you.   Call a spade a spade.  He’s tired.  (And later when he’s more alert, you can keep working through that never ending list of things you both need to do to improve your marriage)

#2 He’s projecting it at you because he loves you.

Your his safe zone.  And you’re his first contact outside the firehouse.  He can’t project it there because all those guys feel that way.  Suck it up partner.  I just had the same night you did.

#3  We have an obligation to our employer and to our family to serve them at our best.

When I’m in a slump, that doesn’t happen so well.  Me being also in a negative slump with icky feelings of worry and sadness for my hubby….. well, those feelings don’t help anyone feel better.  Me or my hubby.

#4  Your compassionate broken heart can burst with even more love and respect for your hubby when you don’t fall into a slump but intentionally take action.

I’m not saying to be a fixer.  Read this “Act Natural” post from Firefighter Husband for more details on that.   I’m saying to take an intentional action in your mind to stay positive and move forward with your responsibilities.  Just being around someone who is a shining light and who finds the silver lining can be enough to rub off a little bit on your hubby and even your kids as they observe your reaction.

Warning on #4:   This can backfire depending on your husband’s personality.

I’ll just put it out there that my husband can get irritated with me at times when I push through the tough stuff while he’s sidelined really struggling with a slump.   It helps to always reset their expectation that no one should be expected to function normal after little sleep and horrific traumas.  It’s ok. You love him right where he is.

And just a couple hints to our firefighters, when you come home in these funks, these tiny little things will help your wife stay on track:

  • Text or call her again as soon as you can utter the strength to speak a little sunshine into her life.  It’s tough work receiving all the tired negative junk and just a tiny little pick me up goes a long way.
  • Did I mention text or call as soon as possible?  Yep.  She’s a woman and she just might get stuck obsessively worrying about you.  A quick, short “I’m ok. I still love you.  I’m getting some sleep.” will go a LONG way.
  • Just try to end the conversation with “I love you and I’m going to be ok.  Don’t worry about me.”
  • Apologize when you should. It’s necessary.
  • Last but most important… If you find that your grumpiness is more than just mental and physical exhaustion that isn’t remedied with some good rest – seek out wide counsel or make an appointment with a counselor specializing in first responders.

Trust me when I say, those simple words go a LONG, LONG way.

Sleep it off Sweetheart <3


Find Your Way through the Fire Life with Fire Wife Academy

This self-paced course covers all of the best topics from our book, Honor and Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters & Their Families.

It's designed for women who are new to fire life.  From just engaged to newlyweds, to long-time wives who find themselves thrust into a new life when their spouse becomes a firefighter later in marriage.  This sister, is for you!

This course includes an intro, overview, additional resources and challenges for each of the 17 chapters you'll find inside of Honor and Commitment.  Plus a Bonus Module: More Than A Fire Wife.

The following two tabs change content below.
On a mission to be and inspire us all to be better humans, to strengthen fire families & marriages, to nurture and encourage fire wives, do "good business" in all areas of my life and of course, love on my 4 kids.

Latest posts by Firefighter Wife (see all)


  1. Trina

    Another possible suggestion for our amazing FFs. After you’ve snapped off your lovely ladies head (from lack of sleep and the WORST calls imaginable all mixed with the blizzard of the century) and handed it to her on your son’s history report that she was working with him on ALL night long, don’t be afraid to apologize and remind her that you love her. We lose sleep holding down the front and have some nights where we see just as much bodily fluids as you guys do. That little pick me up goes a long way for a tired momma/wife/amazing women.

  2. One happy mama

    I really don’t understand why firefighters don’t get different schedules. I veI been marriedto a firefighter for 7 years and don’t understand why they can’t work consistent 12 hour shifts every other day. What other job expects you to work 24 hour shifts sometimes with no sleep at all and save a life? Doctors do not even do this. If there is some way theyalready work the midnight shift for a couple years and when you get higher up in seniority you work the day shift instead of this rotating inconsistent sleep schedule they are forced into with this job that they choose and love.

    • N. Schuller

      Actually Dr’s while they are still becoming Dr’s are forced to work 24 -36 hour shifts. Yes it would be nice if our ff’s worked 8 or 12 hour shifts instead of 24’s or 48’s. Every shift is different, every ff is different. Every dept is different. We just have to figure out our FF’s and deal with what come with this life.

    • Rocky112

      Because departments would have to hire twice as many employees, which means it will cost them twice as much money in salaries, gear, medical benefits, and retirements.

  3. hoodlumofmercy

    One happy mama – I like my 24 on, 48 off. Let’s not mess up a good thing.

    • shelle h

      I agree!! 24 on 48 off. We like our FF home as much as possible!

  4. Sarah

    I agree, I love my husband’s 24 hour schedule. I would hate 12 shifts. He was recently asked to move to fire inspector..more $ but 9-5 m-f, we both said no way!! And this article helped reassure me that I’m doing it right 🙂

  5. Bobby

    I worked 12’s for 6 years and now that I am working 24’s for the last 3 I will never go back..we love our 24s and that will never change

  6. Christie

    Well said, Lori! I’m a 24-yr veteran Fire Wife, and utilize the same philosophies for dealing with aftermath of rough nights. The best thing I can give him is a quiet house to sleep first thing. When sleep isn’t gonna happen, I tend to pacify him with sweetness and his favorite foods, and not much in the way of obligations if we can get away with it.
    We have sort of a joking rule about NO power tools the first day home sleep deprived. I say “sorta joking” because sometimes I have to enforce it! Neither of us wants to spend more hours sitting around the ER where he spent most of the night dropping people off. (It has happened!)
    Thanks for the reminder. Keep up you good work!

  7. Kevin

    I will first say that 24 hour shifts are great, we get a lot of time off. However as described above it has a major downfall, being sleep deficient. I am a great example of being grumpy after a hard shift. Here are things that I find help me out.
    1. Let me sleep.
    2. Leave me alone, I need solitude after chaos.
    3. Breakfast helps a lot, even if I don’t want to eat. For me the choice between sleep or eat is easy, sleep will win.
    4. A hug and kind words go a long way.
    5. Take nothing of what I say in the morning post shift personal. We still love the wife or gf. We just need unwind time.
    I also will say that you gave me some great advice about what I should do after a hard shift.

  8. Karen

    Shifts? There are shifts? Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about that? I could have used time off.

  9. Jenn

    Thank you. Nice to read our life and know we aren’t the only ones living it! I love it and I am so proud to be a firefighter’s wife!

  10. A_fireman

    Ladies, forget this whole list and take this new one to heart. When we walk in the door after a rough night:

    1. Give your fireman a BJ
    2. Hand him something to eat
    3. Let him take a nap to recharge his batteries

    • Steph

      Fire wife here, and i absolutely agree. For us ***** Number 1 is Sex, reconnecting and releasing frustration through the best way!! Then these fall 2nd which ever one comes first by his choice food, sleep,
      Then shower, gym and our family time… Works miracles with us. Ladies take note!!!

  11. Kevin

    I actually wanted to say those exact words. Well said bro.

  12. Rebecca

    I read this to my hubby in the car. He agreed with all of it. One thing I always worried about was when I would put on my brave, sunshine face that he would feel that I was unsympathetic or dismissive of his stress. He assured me that me continuing to protect a positive attitude does not give him that feeling at all.

    I would also recommend that firefighters try to give themselves a transition, 30 minutes of running, tinkering in the garage, walk around Home Depot. What ever helps you transition from station to home. I also try to give the hubs a heads up when I’ve had a rough night with the kids. Two cranky parents does not a happy home make.

  13. Francisco

    Ive read many of these articles and what seems like a good article always turns into this pitty party, convert your firefighter spouse into well…. quite frankly, a puss (to keep it simple). “They’re hurting”. Hurting? No im not hurting. Im just freaking tired. While I as much as the next person appreciate some understanding and time in the morning to come back to reality, I sure as hell dont expect for someone (wife and kids) to rearrange their day and life and be in so much fear that they cant just lead a normal day at home. Seriously, where do these guys work? Many of these people that need this type of pampering are the same ones that wanna brag about what they do, have 10 IAFF stickers on their car and have NO life outside the station. For the record, I ADORE what I do. I’m greatful for the citizens of my big city to have given me the opportunity to serve them. I work at a house that runs between 30 and close to 60 calls a day between an engine, a truck and an aid car, depending on time of year. We dont sleep. Wanna know what my wife does when I get home? Gives me a little time to adjust…. then calls me on my shit. At that point I realize I need to suck it up and stop being a bitch and treating others like crap. Sometimes. … it goes on all day lol. Another thing that goes a long way….. like a previous poster said…. sex. Stop the bs. Sex. If ya dont wanna jump in the shower with him and give him sex then at least jump in the shower and let him/her flirt. Cant think of a time where my day didn’t improve after a good… well you get my drift. Stop making your firefighter seem so fragile. Theyre not. If ya think the firehouse is like a game of ring around the rosy and people crying over what they see. .. think again. Youre being made to believe that so you keep pampering. Trust me, if they have the self control to not tell a chief to kiss their ass…. then they have the self control to treat you with respect. Stop calling yourself a firewife…. youre a wife and as such such expect as much.

    • Jenn O

      You’re right on a lot of this..especially the SEX part. We call it the reset button. I can’t think of a better way to reconnect, and get his mind back on home!

    • Felica

      Well said. Love the self control statement too.

  14. Francisco

    Wait wait… I almost forgot…. whoever says stop the 24 hour shifts…. shut the hell up. 12 hour shifts every other day? Sorry…. I’ll keep my 24 on 48 off; 24 on 96 off…. yep 8 days a month. 12s….. crazy talk.

  15. Alan


  16. Alan

    Thank you Francisco!!!! I’ve doing this for, well, it doesn’t matter…. I don’t want to be pampered and tip-toed around. Just let me vent, get the kids occupied so we can go have some couple “playtime” – y’all notice sex is a common theme from us? And let me sleep.

    And firemen, take Francisco and Rebecca’s and other’s advice. Your first job is to be a husband and a father. Riding on the fire truck isn’t who you are! It’s what you do to earn a living! As soon as you identify more with your job than you do your family you’re headed for a hard home life.

    Work with her to do what you need to do to rest up and decompress. And make certain you do what she needs you to do to help her do the same. She’s got needs and wants too.

    When I was new I used to come home after a wild night and be agitated and irritable to my wife. And honestly I thought I was a salty bada$$. Then I grew up and quit acting like that. Don’t be a douche like I was. Don’t take work stress out on your family by being a turd.

  17. Alan

    I know you mean well, One Happy Mama. But please don’t punish your husband (and the rest of us) by calling for an end to 24 hr shifts.

  18. Anonymous

    Call me bitter but I am quite frankly tired of watching my husband sleep his life away bc of some job that hardly pays the bills! Why does he get to sleep all day when he gets home and I have to be alone with 4 kids ( I didn’t create them alone) two of who still wake up in the middle of the night? I rarely get to sleep before midnight as it is bc I have to wait for them to sleep before I can productively do any house work ( ever try folding laundry with a one yr old and a 3 yr old in their bedroom with the door open and the gate locked….. “I want out” “mommy I want to go downstairs” and lots of crying from the little one) it’s damn near impossible! Most of the time when he comes home all I want to do is snuggle with him and talk and he can’t keep his eyes open but I HAVE to suck it up no matter what bc If I don’t we all suffer bc he turns into the worst type of verbally abusive ass bc of his sleep deprivation… No wonder the divorce rate for firefighters is so high

    • Lori Mercer - WifeOnFire

      This is not acceptable. We’re not saying to accept verbal abuse. I will say those years when the kids are very little are the most difficult. It’s so physically exhausting, especially when you are doing it almost alone.
      Have you talked to him about this? Someone has to take the first step in the direction towards healing your marriage. That doesn’t mean “suck it up”. It means stay calm, try to be understanding of his perspective and have the difficult conversation.

    • Felica

      I agree Anonymous

  19. Kevin

    Anonymous – why does he sleep all day? Because he just finished working 3 normal (for regular working folk) 8 hour workdays, in one day. I’m sure it depends on where you work, but I get tired of people talking about Firefighters and Paramedics sitting around, doing nothing then coming home doing nothing. My wife used to do that. So, for one shift, I called her on the way to every call for service so she’d know we weren’t just sitting around. Then I’d call her again when we were done (which was usually the beginning of another) so she would know how long each run lasted. Neither of us really got sleep that day. She now understands. With the kids… It will get easier as they get older. At least you get to go to bed and get some sleep. Going to bed at midnight? What time do you get up? Midnight to 6 is 6 hours of sleep. If you sleep it straight through, that’s better than his (if he’s lucky) 2-3 hours of constantly interrupted sleep. All that being said, if he’s with a department that truly doesn’t do much, and he does sleep all night there… Tell him to suck it up.

  20. firefighter

    Firefighting isn’t the only occupation that you see difficult situations and work night shifts. RCMP, nurses, doctors, EMS Services, and many more are under high pressure and sometimes gruesome situations all night long. We do it because we love it. For many it’s our dream job that gives us a comfortable middle class living. Sleep deprivation comes with the territory, we knew what we were signing up for, generally firefighters aren’t soft. A little communication and planning can make a partnership/family much easier after a long nights work. We know when we are sleep deprived and need a recharge. Sex and breakfast is great anytime, before night shift, after night shift, days off, yes please. We adults and know our bodies, we know when we need to sleep, please be mindful if we communicate this. Being a firefighters shouldn’t give us a one way ticket to royal treatment either. Our partners should be treated with love, appreciation, sex, massages, meals, taking care of the kids, and whatever their love language may be should be fulfilled once we are recharged. We are firefighters, most of us aren’t soft, we become conditioned to the difficulties that were once challenging, if we are hurting, we should communicate it. Thank you to all the partners of firefighters who are supportive and understanding of the difficulties the job brings. However, make sure you are loved, cared and respected even when we are under slept.

  21. firefighter

    Sounds like you guys have a lot more going on and need to communicate. Take up some of the free counselling the “job that hardly pays the bills” has to offer. Maybe he can take care of the kids on his days off and you can find a job that satisfies a passion?

  22. Tired Fire/Medic

    This is a great article! Tremendously insightful. And the comments are spot-on. However, the comment by Anonymous has me very concerned, so I want to bring a different perspecitve to the conversation.

    First, I do agree with all of the statements that being tired after a sleepness, rough night is no excuse to treat those around you poorly. They do not deserve it. It is not their fault that you are tired and grumpy. However, if your firefighter consistantly acts in this way, there may be more going on than simply being sleep deprived.

    I was becoming the husband Anonymous describes. I was constantly grumpy and not treating my wife with the respect and love she deserves. I was drinking – a LOT. On my days off, all I wanted to do was sleep. Not just a quick nap to recharge, but just crawl into bed and sleep all day. But I couldn’t sleep no matter how badly I wanted to or how hard I tried – which just made me even more irritable. Fortunately, I realized there was a problem before it destroyed my marriage. Unfortunately, I did not understand the problem until it was far too late to save a career that I loved. I ended my life as a fire/medic after only 10 years. (Almost 15 years if you count volunteer time and working for a private ambulance company before the FD).

    Ten years after leaving, I was still having trouble sleeping. Nightmares were more than just occassional. I would still have days where I was incredibly irritable and, again, starting taking things out on my wife. Irritable days and an upset wife, lead to more drinking.

    By this time, though, there was a lot of talk in the media about our brave soldiers returning home from combat and struggling with PTSD. I realized that I shared many of the symptoms and issues. It took too long, but I eventually admitted that I needed to look into the possibility…..

    Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a severe case of PTSD stemming from my years in EMS. Even though I did not work for an extremely busy department, like Francisco, the years of being knee deep in tragedy on a regular basis took its toll – it broke me emotionally. I don’t know if I saw more than any other fire/medic, (I have been told that, when it comes to kids, I did see more than my share. And it was the kids that really got to me.), but I saw more than I could handle.

    Since being diagnosed, I have been seeing a therapist and under going some pretty intense treatments. The good news: I have made a tremendous amount of progress – with the help, support, and understanding of my amazing wife. Yes, the same wife. The bad news: I did not acknowledge and deal with my problem until it was too late to save my career.

    I won’t go into any more detail here. My intention is not to make this about “ME”. I simply wanted to point out that there may be more to your firefighters story than simply being tired and grumpy. If, however, anyone here wants to “discuss” my journey in a different forum, please just let me know. This is a very important topic and maybe, just maybe, this is a way for me to continue helping people…..

  23. Gelene

    My husband always stopped by the Country Club or a Bar (I don’t know of any woman being involved but suspect there might have been)
    When he had a job out of town and got off at 4 pm or 4:30pm he didn’t get home till 10pm to 2am (the office was an hour away) …
    When he started a business in town and got off at 2:30 pm to drive a school bus he went to a Bar or the Country Club and would still get home anywhere from 10pm to midnight or 1pm …
    I never complained much or made any threats of divorce because I really did adore him BUT I still had a lot of lonely nights and was afraid he would leave me
    We were married 46 yrs before he died in 1998
    I don’t think I have ever felt like he really loved me (or at least loved me as much as I loved him) …
    I have also decided he never trusted me or women in general ___ from the comments he made …
    How can I get rid of the depression I have because of his actions ?

    Hope you can help me …

  24. 208Fireman

    Thanks Firefighterwife! Keep up the sharing. One thing that works in our house when I come home completely spent is just that soft touch from my wife to let me know it’s all good. It’s just that hey I love you we will talk when your rested touch.

    • Jessie

      Yes! Thanks for your comment and support!

  25. Anonymous

    I feel like this wife is saying that we need to be perfect and wonderful all of the time. We can’t have bad days and get empathy and we can’t have issues that may bother us. I am a positive person 90% of the time but being around a cranky negative husband every day that he is off, sucks and is exhausting. I totally let him nap but most of the time he doesn’t or does at off times and the kids have little time him afterwards and then he’s not tired at night when we are. I try so hard to be positive and nice even though I’m tired and with our two small children all day, every day, 24/7, with NO break ever! When my hubby comes home, he rarely helps. I’ll admit, I try not to have him help because I know that he is exhausted and tired and busy and works hard for the family. And he does ask if I need help pretty regularly but at those times, I actually don’t need help. I just need support and love and appreciation and to NOT walk on eggshells all of the time because he is tired and grouchy. I can never have a moment where I’m tired and grouchy. If I’m tired and grouchy World War 3 tends to break out. I agree with a statement above that says that if they have self control to not tell there Chief to kiss their a$$, then they can have control to be respectful and loving to their wives. I’m tired and grouchy sometimes but have the control to be descent. I might make a snappy comment but he vmcan never let that go and it becomes ridiculous. It’s only when he’s snappy and rude to me that I have a hard time being nice back because we all have our struggles and difficulties in everyday life. Not just him. I do appreciate and love him and am proud of what he does but I’m human too. I’m exhausted with this whole thing and definitely see why firefighters have such a big divorce rate.

  26. Christy

    Sure, the lack of sleep affects all areas of life. But like another person has already said, it may be a bigger problem than just a lack of sleep. Years of tragedies and seeing things no human should have to see adds up and changes a person. It doesn’t make one weak. It’s ok to ask for help…it’s actually very courageous to do so. If you do have ptsd, remember it’s a diagnosis but it’s not the end of the world. There is help and it does get better.
    I’m a paramedic and have been in EMS for 17 yrs. I was married for 4 yrs and am now divorced. He was abusive among other things. But I’d get home from work exhausted and he still expected me to clean the house or whatever. It didn’t happen that way. I left. It’s lonely at times, but far better than being hurt.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Completely Fire Up Your Love Life!

Our free eBook, 12 Steamy Days with Your Firefighter, has all the best tips and ideas
to plan 12 AMAZING days of reconnection and intimacy with your firefighter.