Two In - Two Out: Personal Sacrifices of Firefighters
Jan 09, 2012 11:39AM ● Published by Erik Dittmann
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Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there. Dad’s duty bag is packed and sitting by the door, he’s hoping for a shift at the station without the flame’s roar.
Wait -- what? Dad has to work on Christmas?
With recent holidays behind us, it brought to mind the sacrifices our fire/EMS professionals make in the interest of public safety. Working holidays is obviously a common occurrence and a sacrifice for many 24/7/365 occupations. Those who work in these occupations quickly learn to adapt to their non-traditional schedules. However, for those of us in the business, working the holidays throw an additional twist into an already stressful time of the year. While we are generally accustomed to the crazy schedules and unpredictable calls, it can be tough on our families.
I grew up in a fire department family. My dad was an on-call firefighter before being hired as a career firefighter when I was five. As long as I can remember, we juggled a firefighter’s schedule. Sometimes dad was on the scout camp-outs, sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes he was at the band concerts, sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes he was at grandma and grandpa’s house for Christmas, and sometimes he wasn’t. It was okay, though, because my dad was a fireman! Everyone knew where he was and seemed to respect and appreciate what he did. While my dad was keeping the community safe, my mom had the difficult job of keeping the family household running while he was on-duty -- the same task my poor wife Sheila has now had for 28 years.
Necessity being the mother of invention, we made it work. Santa always seemed to know when my dad was on duty on Christmas day and would stop on Christmas Eve and hand us our gifts in-person. If dad was on-duty Christmas Eve, we had to wait for him to get home from work to rip open the gifts. My folks said Santa had a special deal with the firefighters. He knew the firefighters couldn’t be with their families on Christmas so he would visit their houses early. This would help Santa since he could get his mission done sooner on Christmas! It sounded like a sweet deal to me, and I bought it hook-line-and sinker, as did my kids. Now that I think about it, Santa looked an awful lot like my dad’s brother Irv. Probably just a coincidence!
The volunteer, part-time, or paid-on-call firefighters and EMTs and their families are not exempt from the holiday blues. The on-call firefighters don’t have it much better than their career counterparts. When Sheila and I started to date, our parents met each other the first time on Christmas Eve. You guessed it! Half an hour into the festivities, we caught a multiple alarm structure fire, and I was gone for the next 3 hours. Having successfully navigated that awkward and potentially disastrous situation, I figured out Sheila was a keeper!
Christmas was always the worst one for me at the firehouse with the 4th of July being a close second. The birth of our Savior and the birth of our country hold a special place with me. You obviously hate to see people suffer or lose property -- when it happens on Christmas, it just seems to make their loss worse. They will always have that memory attached to Christmas. Similarly for the first responders, being away from their families is the worst memory attached to Christmas.
While the 8 to 12 hour shifts the police, dispatch and hospital folks work are no doubt difficult, the 24 hour shift the career firefighters work can be a real strain. The traditional 24/48 hour firefighter shift rotation (24 hours on-duty, with 48 hours off) has its good points and bad points. The 24/48 shift benefits the city by saving the expense of hiring a 4th platoon of personnel, and the employee has the latitude to do more on their off time, one of those rare win-win situations.
In the firehouse, we can’t run understaffed. If someone calls in sick, either someone is called in or someone doesn’t get to go home at the end of their shift. There is no running short at the fire department. Most members have support systems in place, such as a plan “B” baby sitter, or people to call when a pipe breaks or the furnace goes out, or whatever. You can’t always just go home and deal with it yourself. I always had the comfort of knowing there were a dozen friends and off-duty firefighters my wife could call, at any time, to help out if I was working. Disaster always seemed to happen when I was at the firehouse!
This lifestyle isn’t only difficult on the holidays. In as much as most jobs have deadlines and commitments, few have the in-your-face potential for life or death consequences like ours does. The emergent “do it now” requirement of the fire service limits its employees in some respects. Our paid-on-call firefighters are expected to respond to calls when not at their full-time jobs. Our full-time members are expected to respond to fires and multiple ambulance calls even when off-duty. All of our members are required to live in the area we protect. I truly admire the members of our fire department for their generosity and commitment to the safety of our citizens. They are paid for their services, but they give so much more.
Next time you hear the sirens in the night, rest assured there are dedicated men and women out there ready to drop whatever they are doing to come to your aid.