Bryan County Emergency Services Battalion Chief Otis Willis has worked many a Christmas during his 35 years as a firefighter.
Over that time, he’s seen it all — or as close to all as one can get.
Willis is working this Christmas, too, along with dozens of public safety personnel ranging from police to paramedics from Pembroke to Richmond Hill.
Bryan County EMS alone will have four crews on duty, each working a 24-hour shift beginning at 7 a.m. Christmas.
It’s a day when the sidewalks in town tend to roll up and even traffic on the interstates slows down a bit as people get where they’re going and settle down to celebrate the holiday with family and friends.
“For the most part, Christmases are quiet,” Willis said. “But there’s a lot of potential for things to happen.”
He then rolls off a list of potential disasters ranging from trash fires in fireplaces to fires sparked by a mix of hot Christmas lights and dry trees, overloaded electrical outlets or space heaters placed to close to things that will burn.
“As long as people don’t get crazy … the majority of the time things go smooth on Christmas Day,” Willis said. “But if people behave themselves and have a good time, then I and my crew will have a good time, because we’ll have a quiet Christmas.”
Among those in Willis’ crew who will be working Christmas are paramedic Patty Phillips and EMT intermediate Amy Mason. Both are also certified firefighters.
Phillips has been on the job in Richmond Hill for 24 years, Mason, who once worked in retail, has five years under her belt. Both have worked Christmas holidays in the past, especially Phillips.
“Yes, (I’ve worked) Christmas day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day,” she said. “I’ve run good calls, bad calls, some of them you want to remember, some you don’t want to remember.”
Mason said a few calls stand out.
“It’s pretty quiet, but we’ve had a couple crazy calls,” she said. “Accidents when kids get crazy on scooters on Christmas Day, but usually nothing really bad.”
They say the most frequent calls on Christmas tend to be related to, or caused by, medical emergencies.
“People don’t want to go to the hospital during holidays,” Mason said. “So they’ll wait too long to call us, when they’re already in respiratory distress, or try to drive themselves. And sometimes accidents happen due to medical causes.”
And sometimes, someone starts a fire while trying to deep fry a turkey.
“That’s happened, too,” Willis said.
There’s a Christmas tree glowing softly in the front lobby of the Bryan County Emergency Services office in Richmond Hill, and Christmas cards are taped to a counter.
Just because they’re working doesn’t mean Willis’ crew won’t find time to celebrate Christmas.
Mason said her children will open presents at 5 a.m. so she can get to work by 7 a.m.
“They wanted to do it at 12:01 a.m., and I said ‘noooo,’” she said.
Phillips, who at work is responsible for covering the same part of Richmond Hill in which she, her mother and sister live, will take Mason home with her for a Christmas meal. In years past, they’ve had holiday meals with Richmond Hill firefighters as well.
“I’ll celebrate Christmas Day on Christmas Day,” she said.
Willis, on the other hand, said he’ll open gifts with his family on Christmas Eve.
But one call could change that. Even those BCES workers, and their colleagues in Richmond Hill and Pembroke, who aren’t on duty Christmas Day could be working Christmas Day if necessary.
“It’s part of the job,” Willis said. “Everyone is on call all the time.”
“You’d want us to do it for you if it was your call,” Phillips said.
Besides, there are worse ways to spend the holiday.
“I used to work in retail,” Mason said. “That was much worse. And I’m lucky to have a job.”
It’s a job that brings with it a gift worth plenty, something that seems to help make up for the long hours and low pay.
“It’s amazing what people thank us for, especially when you look at what little they’ve got left after a fire call, or with these young ladies (Mason and Phillips), with their medical calls … people still say, ‘Thank you,’” Willis said.
In fact, Mason said Phillips is so well known for her work as a paramedic, she’s practically famous.
“Everybody remembers Patty,” Mason said. “Everywhere we go, they’re always coming up to her and telling her they remember when she ran this call or that call.”
Knowing you’re appreciated makes up for missing time with family and friends over the Christmas holidays, they said.
“It really helps,” Willis said. “A ‘thank you’ really carries you over those times when you wonder if it’s all worth it. Then you remember, and you say, ‘OK, and you get back to work.”