Christmas isn’t day off for all

In 10 years as a Franklin police officer, Sgt. Brian Oliver has worked on Christmas six times, meaning his holiday celebrations fall to another day.

This year, he will celebrate with his family on Christmas Eve. On other years, that celebration might have to be on the 23rd or 26th, depending on his work schedule.

On Christmas, hundreds of police officers, firefighters, nurses and doctors still will head to work, just like they would any other day. Some departments across the county have a smaller shift that day, and others have full staff.

Most people working know what their shift will be well in advance, since nurses alternate the holidays they work and police and firefighter schedules are made well in advance. And working on holidays is a part of the job they expect when they go into their career field, they said.

But they also find ways to make working on a holiday more enjoyable. Fire stations will have a pitch-in meal for firefighters, and sometimes their children will come to the station to open up their presents. At Johnson Memorial Hospital, different stations are decorated for the holidays.

In Greenwood, the fire department is fully staffed as it would be on any normal day, with 21 firefighters on during the day and 22 coming in at 6 p.m. for the night shift.

Having such a large crew makes working the holiday a little more bearable, longtime firefighter Todd Brooks said. Those working the day together often will share a large meal and sometimes do a small gift exchange.

“It’s a lot like Christmas with your second family,” Brooks said.

As a nurse for more than two decades, Dianna Pierce, who works in the emergency room at Johnson Memorial, also has had her fair share of missed holidays due to her career. The nurses’ schedules are set up so that they take turns working different holidays.

Nurses, doctors and other hospital employees on-duty during Christmas work to keep up the holiday spirit.

“We have pitch-ins,” she said. “We decorate the units for Christmas. We all make the best of it. Everyone is pretty happy.”

Nurses often try to make sure that parents with young children have the opportunity to be home with their families on Christmas if possible, Pierce said.

Both of Pierce’s kids are in college now, so that’s less of an issue. But when her children were younger, she would work a night shift so she could get home around 7:30 a.m. on Christmas, right when her kids were awake and ready to start opening presents. When she has had to work on Christmas Day, that typically means the family’s celebrations get moved up a day to Christmas Eve, Pierce said.

While that means Pierce has one less day to shop for presents and prepare Christmas meals, she was well aware of the hours she would work when she was choosing her career, she said.

Efforts are made to give as many police officers the day off as possible by putting a smaller crew on duty in some local departments.

On a typical day, eight or nine police officers are on duty at a time, but Franklin will have five officers on the first shift this Christmas and six on the second. The rest of the scheduled officers are given the day off, with preference usually determined by seniority.

The same is true at local fire departments. Franklin, which has its firefighters working 24-hour shifts every third day, will have 11 firefighters, down from the usual 14 or 15, and four Seals crew members clocking in at 7 a.m. Monday and staying on until that same time Tuesday. The Bargersville Community Fire Department will also be at its minimum staffing level of 10, Chief Jason Ramey said.

Franklin Fire Chief Daniel McElyea said that the firefighters know a year in advance who will have the holiday off and who won’t; McElyea, for example, is on this year. Some firefighters who don’t have small children will do time swaps with those who do, agreeing to cover their shift for a few hours so they can be home while their kids open presents.

Some families will even have children go in and open their presents at the fire station, and firefighters at the three stations often have a pitch-in meal, McElyea said.

Working on Christmas is just something that comes with being a firefighter, he said.

“It’s the job,” he said. “We know when you become a career firefighter, like many professionals out there, you’re going to work holidays, you’re going to work weekends. It’s just the luck of the draw.”

Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Nate Hedrick said Christmas is one of the longest work days of the year, because it’s usually slow and few places around the county are open. That can make for a lonely day, but Hedrick also knew what to expect when he got into law enforcement, he said.

“Would I rather be off and watch my daughter open her presents? Absolutely,” Hedrick said. “But somebody’s got to be out here doing this, and it’s something that I understood going into it and it’s something that I’ve done for so long that now it’s second nature.”

In addition, some local businesses and churches open their doors to those on-duty for the day, offering a warm meal to workers who can’t be home to get one.

“The community really pitches in and helps us out,” Oliver said. “They know that it’s rough on us and it’s rough on our families, so they try to step up and help us out to make it a little less stressful for us.”

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.