“It’s already started,” Floyd County police Sgt. Rusty Williams noted, referring to a vehicle theft, as he sat down at a desk in a briefing room on the second floor of the Joint Law Enforcement Center early Christmas morning.
Trays of baked goods, including cookies which third shift had picked at, covered an adjacent table and Christmas cards hung from the edges of the desk. With this one call, the first shift had abruptly begun, as Williams sent one of his four officers out to the incident scene.
Three of his other officers had moseyed into the room, followed by Lt. Ron Hunton, who wasn’t working but came in to drop off a homemade breakfast.
Just like any other briefing to start any other day, Williams updated his officers on what happened overnight and what to follow up on. As he finished his remarks, he told the officers, “If you’re going to be home with your family, that’s fine, just keep your radios on.”
Working on holidays comes with the job of public service, whether it is as a police officer, paramedic, 911 dispatcher or firefighter. The schedule doesn’t change when a holiday rolls around — unless an arrangement can be made with a co-worker to cover another’s shift or swap hours to meet the demands of family parties or opening presents. In most cases, holiday plans have to be scheduled on days other than Christmas.
“We knew that when we signed up,” Rome police Lt. Danny Story told his guys in a room a floor above where Floyd County officers were shuffling into an elevator to head for their cars.
The group of eight Rome officers picked at their own supply of treats and Eric Brunson poured from his Thermos hot Colombian coffee for his colleagues — himself drinking from a Grinch mug.
Officer Chris Ridling commented that if he couldn’t be home with his own family, he’d want to be with his second one.
If calls slow down, Brunson said officers can stop at home for a short time if they live in the city. The Christmas Day calls that do come in tend to pertain to domestic incidents, he added.
“A little too much ho ho ho,” joked officer Scott Kasmar.
Taking the calls, from their second-floor office at the law enforcement center, were Floyd County 911 dispatchers. Brandie Newman dressed the part of her favorite Christmas movie “Elf,” wearing a Santa hat with elf ears and red fur wrapped around her boots.
Newman said her first call of the day was from a woman reporting that her cousin was driving up from Taylorsville in a canary-yellow Corvette to shoot her. Yes, callers’ descriptions can be expertly precise or frustratingly vague, she said.
The q-word — quiet — is not to be said in the 911 center, especially on holidays, for the sake of potentially jinxing a slow day and turning it upside down into chaos.
“Just as quickly as you have nothing to do you have something to do,” said Newman, who was working a half-day, leaving at 1 p.m. to go home to her two kids.
As a dispatcher, certain calls can have a personal impact that go beyond the job.
“Working here makes you realize how important family is and how quickly it can go away,” Newman said.
No strangers to this notion are the paramedics of Floyd Medical Center and Redmond Regional Medical Center.
“We deal with lives,” said Bo Arrant, an FMC paramedic. “That’s the one thing you can’t replace. That’s the one thing we can give people’s families every day.”
Arrant had responded to International Paper early Monday morning to care for and transport a worker who had lost an arm while on the job, he said. He is in the hospital on Christmas Day, he added, but he still has his life.
It’s in these moments where families see what’s truly important, Arrant continued. And when he is in other’s homes where a lack of food is obvious, it instills gratefulness in one’s own life.
“It’s a people-person business,” Arrant said.
And wrecks or shootings or industrial incidents do not make up all of the situations they respond to. Sometimes, especially on holidays, it’s simply being someone to talk to as they are checked up on — an elderly woman whose grandkids haven’t visited or an individual questioning if they want to live anymore.
But a bulk of time spent at work can be waiting, said FMC paramedic Sarah Ellison, watching TV, finishing paperwork on the computer or playing cards. Then, when the dispatch comes, it could be nothing more than heartburn.
“We definitely get the chest pain calls because they ate so much,” Ellison said.
Kids getting hurt while testing out their new toys, like a bicycle or four-wheeler, are some other types of typical holiday calls, said Wayne Johnson, part of Redmond’s EMS team.
“Even though it’s a holiday, we can’t just take it off,” he said. “Someone needs to work.”
A meal was planned for Floyd EMS staff at 1 p.m. But a set time is always subject to change on a whim.
“It’s hard to plan … because you never know what you’re going to be doing,” Ellison said.
However, the Rome-Floyd County firefighters of Station 5, off John Davenport Drive, were able to make it through a collective meal with their families without a screeching dispatch alarm interrupting them.
“The bell actually hit right before you walked in the door,” said Capt. Nate Helms. “But it turned out to be nothing.”
Tables were spread out in the fire hall, with one of them that was loaded down with a variety of dishes — like ham, green bean casserole and stuffing — spanning the hallway from the front entrance.
“This is our house,” said Helms, as the overtones of Ralphie’s voice in “A Christmas Story” sounded. “We’re family for a third of the year.”
Joining second-generation firefighter Charlie Bullard, besides his wife and two young boys, was his father and retired firefighter Steve Bullard. He knew exactly what he was getting into — the missed holidays and birthdays — when he joined the department almost two years ago.
“I’ve heard a lot of war stories,” said Charlie Bullard, who had his kids up at 5 a.m. Monday morning to open presents with him before going into work, a custom from his own youth.
Teamwork is essential to firefighting, said Chris Moreland from across the table from Charlie Bullard. So naturally, it’s a family-oriented profession, he added.
“We couldn’t do it without our families,” Moreland said. “We all do it because we love doing it.”
But anytime something goes wrong at home it’s when they are at work, such as broken bones to busted water pipes.
“I think it makes us cherish time at home a lot more,” said Moreland.
Sitting around the table and sharing in a meal each firefighter pitches in from their own pocket to buy is a tradition in this profession, Helms said. Sharing stories and past experiences helps younger firefighters, which the department currently has plenty of, grow into more seasoned professionals, he added.
It also plays into that all-important element of firefighting, and, for that matter, all of public service: Family.