Burning for you

PRAYING FOR SAFETY Jessica and Jeff MacPhail met in their early teens at a church youth group. Here the couple stands with their two children Selah and Sophia.Photo: Kevin Johnson

All marriages have their struggles, but women whose husbands are running toward flaming danger while everyone else is running away face special struggles.

Their husbands spend long days—sometimes weeks—apart from family, and the rate of divorce in firefighting families burns high—three times that of the general population.

The women not only worry about whether their husbands will return at the end of a shift, but they also often spend birthdays and holidays alone, caring for their children—itself a fulltime job—as if they were single parents.

Three local fire wives share their keys to maintaining a successful marriage where risk of loss is high and hours parenting solo are long. How do they do it?

The Deckers

Sharon Scariot-Decker was immediately immersed into the fire-wife life when she first met the captain of the Las Animas Fire Station, Randy Decker, more than 20 years ago.

Since then, Sharon’s accepted the consequences of her husband’s career.

“I worried about him as a firefighter because he goes into the fires. Then he was the engineer, and I was like, ah, he’s manning the truck, that’s good, I like that,” Sharon says.

As captain, Randy is not only responsible for himself, but the entire team.

“It’s a lot of responsibility. There’s always something to worry about.”

This unusual lifestyle affects each member in a fire family. The Decker children—Callie Ann, 12, and Cody, 9, are no exception.

“It’s really hard on the kids, especially at night,” Sharon says.

“They still miss him when he’s gone. I just tell them, ‘you know your dad’s a fireman, and that’s his job, and I miss him too.’”

A full-time mother and part-time dental hygienist, Sharon says that, for the most part, she handles life “one day at a time.”

But two years ago she faced the worst scenario of her life when she received a call from their children’s school informing her that Callie had fallen on the playground and broken her leg.

“I called Randy and told him, ‘I don’t know what to do’,” says Sharon.

Randy, along with the entire fire station, immediately raced to the scene.

Soon after the accident, Callie’s leg became infected, which resulted in nine surgeries over the next two years.

During that time, due to the infection, it was necessary to leave a hole in Callie’s leg, and it fell to Sharon to administer the weekly wound changes and packing of the leg.

“It’s been challenging,” Sharon says with tears in her eyes.

“I try and have just a positive attitude. Plus I have, well, I’ve got the big Man upstairs watching over me.”

During the early months after the accident, Randy realized his place was at home with his family.

“Having Randy take time off from work was really important, just having him here,” Sharon says.

“[Callie]’s just been great, for all she’s been through with all the surgeries, and laid up here at 12 years old, going from a hospital bed to a wheelchair to one of those little scooters,” Randy says.

Sharon was fortunate to have Randy’s support early in the process, and ultimately the two were triumphant in managing their daughter’s injury and difficult road to recovery—keeping the delicate balance of their relationship and family in focus.

Recently, the Deckers received good news: Callie’s leg is free of infection and she can resume her normal activities, including her favorite, swimming.

Randy realizes and appreciates how his wife accepts being both dad and mom when he’s away, regardless of the situation.

“Whatever the problem is, Sharon is there and takes care of it,” says Randy. “She supports our family so much.”

The Bebees

Victoria Bebee, fire wife of nearly 15 years and mother of three—Liam, 20, Victoria’s son from a previous relationship, Kory, 13, and MacKenzie, 12—has a better understanding of the life of a first responder than most fire wives.

Victoria met her firefighter husband, Kevin Bebee of the Sunset Fire Station, when she was studying to be an EMT. For a time the couple worked together at American Medical Response; Kevin as a paramedic, and Victoria as an EMT.

“Kevin and I were actually partners on an ambulance,” Victoria says. “That’s kind of how our life started together.”

Victoria can still recount the small, minute details of her first bad calls, and understands the mindset her husband needs to be in in order to do his job.

Firefighters face unimaginable situations; choking victims, drownings, and of course, fires.

“As the family they come home to, understanding the grieving process is important,” she says.

“I have had to go through those grieving phases personally and professionally myself, and it’s a difficult journey.”

First responders build up walls, and have a tendency to shift their focus toward the humorous side of life.

“You have to,” says Victoria. “You can’t survive if you don’t.” Adding that this has led to some interesting family discussions.

“We’ll talk about blood and gory stuff at the table, and not even think about it,” she says. “It’s not a big deal.”

After each shift, the firefighter returns home and transitions from first responder to family man—not an easy switch.

“They’re [going] from one environment to another environment. It’s hard on everybody, it’s hard on the kids, it’s hard on the wives, and it’s hard on them,” says Victoria.

At the end of Kevin’s 48-hour shift, (the Gilroy Fire Department’s schedule is two days on and four days off), Victoria calls and fills him in on how she and the kids are doing during his commute to their Campbell home.

“It’s kind of like you can set your mind with how the day’s going to go,” Kevin says.

Victoria now works from home as a medical staffing specialist, allowing her the availability she needs to be there for her family. A true benefit for a fire wife since their husband’s schedule may change without notice.

“I have to plan around myself, that’s what happens,” says Victoria. “In the back of my head, there’s always a plan B.”

Like many fire wives, Victoria struggled before adopting this perspective on life.

“I used to not have that mentality when the kids were younger,” she says. “After a couple of times of just having meltdowns over it I thought, I just need to accept it, and I just need to, just do it.”

“There have been missed birthdays, missed holidays, you just kind of learn that the time you spend with them is good, and you’re lucky,” Victoria says.

“And the times you don’t, you just sort of do what you can as the other parent at home to make up for it.”

Now that the children are older, the couple makes an effort to spend time together, just the two of them.

“I feel like it brings us together closer, and kind of reminds us that we actually like each other,” Victoria says with a grin.

Kevin proudly acknowledges the sense of security his wife provides him when he’s on the job.

“She’s very, very, good at picking up the pieces, and putting them all together, and making it work,” he says.

The MacPhails

Jessica MacPhail met her husband Jeff, a firefighter at the Chestnut Fire Station, at a church youth group when they were both in their early teens.

Even then, Jeff knew he wanted to make firefighting his career, and after graduating from Gilroy High, he entered EMT training.

This May, the couple will celebrate their six-year anniversary, and, for Jessica, a relatively new fire wife, that lifestyle comes in waves of both challenges and changes.
“My first significant struggle was dealing with living by myself a significant amount of the time,” Jessica says. “It took me at least a year to be able to go to sleep at night without having anxiety, every night.”

The couple has two children—Selah, 2, and Sophia, 3 months—and unlike most new mothers, who have the security of knowing that at the end of the day their husband will be there to provide a much-needed break, this is not the case for the fire wife.

“When Jeff is working, I don’t have that daily comfort knowing that my husband is coming home,” she says.

“Some days feel completely manageable,” says Jessica. “But there are those days when it would feel like a total relief knowing that my husband, and helpmate, is coming home.”
Jeff’s absence on holidays and family celebrations are yet another challenge Jessica has learned to accept.

The painful inquiry, “Where’s Jeff?” is a stinging reminder that she’s unable to share those special occasions with him.

“Even though I’ve totally accepted that, it still makes me a little sad at times,” Jessica says.

“I honestly try not to think too much about being by myself when I am, because I know I am very capable of keeping things going at home. When Jeff knows everything and everyone at home is taken care of by me, he doesn’t have to worry.”

A major aspect of the fire wife’s life, most would assume, would be dealing with the risk factor associated with their spouse’s job. Surprisingly, such fears are not pervasive in the daily lives of each of these fire wives. Sharon puts worry to rest through her faith.

“I just pray they are safe, and come home safe,” she says. “I really try not to worry. I would drive myself crazy, and I don’t want to worry my kids.”

Victoria admits that if she spent her time focused on Kevin’s safety, she’d be “paralyzed by fear and worry.“I never let him leave without telling him I love him. He never leaves without telling the kids goodbye and that he loves them.”

Unfortunately, there will always be situations that bring the reality of the risk factor front and center.
“Seeing the 9/11 memorial in person, and the countless number of firefighters felt really emotional as it’s obviously personal to me,” says Jessica. “The only way I know how to deal with fear, especially fears that I cannot control, is to pray.”