Irregular work hours and constant stress can mean trouble for a firefighter's marriage.
Lori Mercer is on a mission to change that. The founder of FirefighterWife.com, she wants to help reduce divorce and "strengthen, ignite and rescue firefighter marriages."
"When you see death and destruction, that's a lot to process," the 41-year-old mother of four said. "There's a whole lot of stress on a relationship on top of how tough marriage already is."
Mercer was among the exhibitors at the Firehouse Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center downtown. The four-day event that ended Saturday also featured seminars on firefighting tactics and operations, displays of new products and demonstrations of fire-rescue equipment.
This was the 31st year that Baltimore has hosted the expo, said Ed Nichols, vice president for the event. The trade show is the largest on the East Coast, drawing visitors from states including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia, he said.
"Baltimore has been a wonderful location for us in terms of ease of access," Nichols said.
The expo had about 10,000 participants, including the exhibitors, Nichols said. Exhibition booths featured products such as pagers, thermal imaging cameras and hydraulic rescue tools.
Visitors attended courses on topics including fighting fires in homes of hoarders, responding to train wrecks, and getting in shape. And presenters detailed high-profile cases, such as the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a 2013 incident in Gwinnett County, Ga., where a gunman took five firefighters hostage.
"This is really about keeping firefighters safe, and we're very proud of that," Nichols said, adding that the Baltimore City Fire Department also provided hands-on training this year.
Mercer, who works in the information-technology field and lives in Ohio, shared the story of how she struggled early in her marriage with the stress of her husband's job.
She said her online group started after she blogged about the problems she faced early in her marriage to her husband, Daniel.
"I started sharing our marriage struggles and what we did to get through them," Mercer said. "Honestly, I didn't expect it to get this big."
She eventually launched the online group FirefighterWife.com, where women across the country can confide in one another about juggling their families' schedules, dealing with stress and keeping the passion alive in their marriages. The site, which she says is the largest national community of fire wives, has a policy of "no husband bashing."
"There's no secret formula to being a fire wife," Mercer said. "You have to intentionally work on your marriage."
At the Fire Wives exhibition booth, Lisa Warwick of Middle River and Kathaleen Berhiet of Waldorf passed out literature and greeted visitors.
"It's a very positive group," said Warwick, 42, whose husband works for the Baltimore County Fire Department.
Eventually, the spouse of a firefighter must let go of the fear of the dangers their partner faces, Warwick said.
"If you worry about it, you'll never sleep, you'll never eat," said Warwick, a physical therapist assistant. "You just have to live your life."