Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for most people mean time with family, opening presents and having turkey dinner with everyone around the dinner table.
But for members of Port Alberni’s emergency services, those who work with the elderly and others, it means a day away from their families while they are at work.
The holidays can still be celebrated with some deft scheduling. Despite the inconvenience and sacrifice, working on Christmas Day has its own rewards—some monetary (firefighters, ambulance attendants and elderly care workers all receive extra statutory holiday, or “super-stat” pay to work on Christmas Day) and others less tangible.
This year, Port Alberni Fire Department captain Ed Francoeur isn’t working on Christmas Day. But he’s worked nearly every Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in the 21 years he has worked with the Port Alberni Fire Department.
“I can count the number of times on one hand that I haven’t worked them,” the married father of four said.
Firefighters work shifts of four days on and four days off. They have no choice about whether or not they work on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. “That’s just the way the shifts fall: if you have a shift that day then you work,” Francoeur said.
Firefighters don’t have control over whether or not they work a shift on Dec. 24-25, But there is wiggle room to accommodate someone during a shift.
“A guy may stay late so that someone coming on shift can finish dinner with their family. And someone may come on shift early so that someone else can go home for dinner with his family,” Francoeur said.
If they can accommodate it, firefighters who work on Christmas Day will either have a turkey dinner or a special meal of some sort together.
But the bucolic stillness of a Christmas Day at the fire hall can be broken in an instant by a call to respond to an emergency.
Francoeur remembers a call to a house fire one year. The fire caused extensive damage to a home but firefighters managed to save much of the family’s valuables including their Christmas presents.
Not all Christmas Day stories have a happy ending for firefighters. Francoeur remembers responding to a car accident. After reflecting for a moment he declines to discuss the incident. “I don’t want to get into that further. I don’t want to dwell on it,” he said.
Francoeur celebrates Christmas with his family as best as his shift will allow.
He can’t fool his now adult children the way he did when they were younger though. “If I had to work on Christmas Day we’d pretend Christmas was on Boxing Day,” he said.
Veteran BC Ambulance crew chief Bruce Patterson has worked more Christmas Days than he can remember over his 27 years as a paramedic. “I’ve worked both the day shift and the night shift,” he said.
Paramedics also work on a shift basis and someone’s shift has to fall on Christmas Day, Patterson said.
Like fire and police the ambulance service must be available 24 hours per day for 365 days per year. “Working shift work comes with the territory when you take this job,” Patterson said. “You know at some point you’re going to be away when others are not.”
The split between married and single paramedics is even at two-two for the Christmas Eve shift this year, while three married people and one single person are working Christmas Day, Patterson said.
Paramedics will deck their “buses”—ambulances—with reindeer antlers or a Santa figure on Christmas Day. People often drop treats off at the ambulance station, and if time permits paramedics will drop by other emergency service offices to wish colleagues a merry Christmas.
Like firefighters, one tragic call can change the dynamic of the day.
“And we tend to answer more calls involving alcohol that day,” Patterson said.
Celebrating Christmas with family takes some planning. “We’ll either celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day when I get home,” Patterson said. “You tailor it to fit the shift.”
Patterson remembers one Christmas Day in particular when he didn’t work. He was sitting in his living room when he heard the voice of his adult son who was away in Calgary and he hadn’t seen in a year.
Patterson’s wife had secretly arranged for their son to come home so the family could spend Christmas together.
Christmas at home with family means something different for the 67 residents of Fir Park and Echo Village. And no one knows their day more than the 32 employees who work over two shifts on Dec. 24-25.
“They are like our extended family and you can’t help but feel lots of love that’s around here that day,” said Kim Madsen, who has worked every Christmas Day for the last 10 years.“Not everyone likes working Christmas Day but I consider it a privilege.”
Keely Wagner is also working Christmas Day. She will have Christmas dinner with her family on Christmas Eve and enjoy the morning with her children on Christmas Day before she goes to work.
Wagner remembers working her first Christmas Day when she was 21 years old. She went to work on a bit of a downer but upon arrival “I felt like I had all of these grandparents here,” she said. “I still feel that way today.”
Madsen agreed. “I felt the same way,” he said. “It made up for that feeling I never had growing up.”
Workers hand out presents the board bought for the residents, and serve a special Christmas meal later. Workers also serve as surrogate family members for residents, but especially for those who don’t receive visitors that day.
Staff used to get together for their own dinner years ago but the practice stopped when care requirements expanded and took away the time to do it.
Staff also work shifts, but workers will barter shifts to allow some married staff to spend the day with their families.
Brad Coates has worked most Christmas Days since he broke into the care attendant business. Coates spends time with his girlfriend before his shift and makes time for her and other family when he gets off work.
“I choose to work on that day. But the way I look at it someone else gets a chance to stay home with their family,” he said.
“In a perfect world we’d all be with our families.”