By Lauren Estes and Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper noticed on more than one occasion that he was missing from holiday family photos because of his duty to the community — and he's not alone.
While most holiday celebrators enjoy Christmas at home with family, many local first responders remain on call or are scheduled to work on Christmas Day because even though much of the world shuts down for family events, accidents and incidents can still happen.
"I was just talking with my wife about this very thing; We were looking through pictures of my kids playing with the snow over the years and I'm not in or taking any of them, she always did," Culpepper said. "Anytime it would snow and roads became icy, I would go into work in case of accidents or the possibility of people being stranded, we'd be there to help. That's just one example that I can think of little things you miss while carrying the role of an emergency responder."
Culpepper said with the holidays, he remains on call and typically gets to spend time with his family unless something happens that requires him to go to a call.
"I remember being on patrol and getting to go home for a little bit to watch my kids open presents and then having to leave right after to go back to work," Culpepper said. "It's the territory of working with emergency services."
Culpepper and Cullman Fire Rescue Chief Junior Reinhardt agree that the call volume varies from holiday to holiday based on different circumstances.
"Different holidays see different types of calls. On New Year's Eve we have extra personnel out because there are usually more issues on the road," Culpepper said. "On Halloween we see more people out with children and also more parties than other holidays. On Independence Day we typically have more issues usually stemming form accidents involving fireworks. Christmas and Thanksgiving usually surround family events so there are less issues, but I can remember things happening over the years."
"Each Christmas varies, sometimes it's really quiet and we don't have to cover any calls and sometimes we have major structure fires. You never know," Reinhardt said. "We respond to a few wrecks, but that usually depends on what day Christmas falls on, which usually affects how many people are traveling."
Reinhardt said between the three fire chiefs, one is always on call, and it's his turn to be this year on Christmas Day.
"I remember one Christmas the family had just sat down to have Christmas dinner and we got a call about a structure fire. You don't have time to sit and eat and then go, you just go," Reinhardt said. "The crews miss more time than the chiefs do. They work a 24-hour shift and miss out on the whole Christmas day and Christmas night. Especially the young guys who have young kids- it's kind of a balancing act who gets off. Sometimes some will come in and work for a few hours to allow the fathers with younger kids to go home for a few hours with their families. We divide the time up so they can have their family time, too. I was talking to one of my captain's and he worked three Christmas's in a row while his kids were little."
Officer Chris Nichols is one of those "guys with younger kids" and said he can recall working multiple Christmas day's over the years.
"I couldn't give you an exact number, but there have been several. Whatever shift is working that day, works on Christmas, it's just how it is," Nichols said. "Some guys take off, but we can't all be off, someone has to work. The department is good to us and will still allow us to have some time with our families even if we are working. I have a little boy who is 11 and a six-year-old little girl and they work with us to get some family time in."
Fire department shifts contain between 9-12 workers and the police department usually has around seven officers working per shift.
"Things still happen. Just because it's a holiday doesn't mean it stops things from happening, and when they do we have to be there to help," Nichols said. "As much as we would like to be off and be at home with our families on Christmas, we also understand that we can't all be off and need to be willing to make that sacrifice for the community. It's a part of working in emergency response services."
For the crew of Cullman EMS, Christmas won’t be spent with loved ones and trying out new presents. It will mean being away from their families for a 12-hour shift on standby for emergency medical calls. Many of the experienced EMTs, paramedics and dispatchers have worked more than one Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in their career, fielding calls and helping the injured or sick.
“I’ve had to work three of the past four years on Christmas so I’m pretty much used to it by now,” said paramedic Adam Taylor. “My family is going to do Christmas the day after on the 26th. I’m sure our kids will be pretty excited and ready to get their presents open with me by then.”
EMT Tammy Kaser said her two teenagers and 5-year-old are pretty much accustomed to celebrating Christmas either early or later depending on when her extended family gets together. However, EMT/ dispatcher Stacey Weller said her children aren’t too happy about having to reschedule Christmas around her work, with her 12-year-old son telling her, “It just ain’t right! Why can’t they close on Christmas?”
“They’re good about dealing with it though,” Weller said. “My boys told me as long as we can still have Christmas dinner together as a family, it’s fine.”
At paramedic supervisor Tim Sartin’s house, his family opens presents early in the morning and then Tim has to head off to work for the rest of the day.
“For a lot of us, our families are in the same field. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law are in it, and my mother is a nurse at Walker Baptist Hospital. We just all know how it goes.”
Cullman EMS Director Jerry Sellers said local volunteer firefighters and rapid responders also give up time with their families on the holidays to respond to emergencies like car wrecks, fires and other accidents.
“And they do it without getting paid, just so they can help take care of people,” Sellers said.
Sartin said most Christmases remain pretty quiet, but that can depend on the weather.
“It can just weigh on your heart when you have to go out to a bad scene, like when we had to work a fatal car wreck on Christmas day one year,” Kaser said.
Weller said typical calls that come in on Christmas range from relatives calling 911 because they’re worried about their ailing and elderly kin, family members squabbling — particularly if alcohol is involved — or divorced parents quarreling over sharing time with their children over the holidays.
“In a perfect world, Christmas would be on Christmas for everyone,” Kaser said.
Lauren Estes can be reached at email@example.com or 256-734-2131, ext. 137.