Emergency Personnel Make Their Own Memories when They Work Holidays
While families gather at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Oklahoma City Police Staff Sgt. Suzanne Montgomery will be out patrolling the streets. Like many other emergency services personnel or law enforcement officers, Suzanne gives up her holidays with family to ensure the safety of citizens.
She’s not alone.
Dealing with the stresses of the holiday season also wears on officers. Officers in the field say they must contend with an increased number of family fights, car accidents and child custody disputes along with the usual menu of crimes. According to psychologists and police counselors, the contrast between the holiday spirit and reality can seriously stress or depress officers.
According to Officer.com, Thanksgiving weekend is also the most traveled holiday period of the year with almost 90 percent traveling doing so by car, which relates to an increase in DUI-related traffic accidents. Thanksgiving tops the list of the deadliest times to be on the road.
Partner violence and domestic disputes also typically increase 22 percent on Thanksgiving. In addition, cooking fires occur twice as often on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year. Depression and mental health issues also increase on Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
Suzanne, who signed on at OKCPD in 1992, took 10 years off to raise her four children but has been with the department now for 17 years. This holiday, she will likely again work Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
“Everyone has to work one or two holidays,” she says. “Normally, we learn to work around it. If you have the night shift, you can get off in the morning and catch Thanksgiving meals or Christmas. If you are lucky to patrol the district you live in, sometimes you can take your lunch during the day shift to catch the family meal. Otherwise, you schedule your family holidays for the next day or so.”
The calls Suzanne and OKC Police Dispatcher Paula Reed Overton face on holidays can be tough as well.
“The more time and experience you have, the more you get used to it, but the first few years were tough,” Suzanne says. “Domestic issues are hard, but during November and December, we get a huge amount of mental health calls. Depression is big during the holidays, and we see those types of calls go up. Christmas is the big one. If people have lost a loved one or don’t have family, those can be tough calls to take.”
Paula, a 14-year veteran of Oklahoma City Police’s dispatch center, also often works holidays, sometimes for multiple years in a row. The first several years on the job in the 911 center, she worked every holiday, but she and her office mates try to communicate and work in at least one free holiday.
“For me, working holidays isn’t too tough because I work overnights. If I have to work on Christmas Eve, I get off at 7:30 a.m. and can spend the morning and day with the family,” she says. “My family is used to it, but what you usually trade for spending time with the family is sleep.”
Like Suzanne, Paula says the calls she usually gets at the center late nights on holidays are from the lonely and depressed.
“By time midnight comes, most family disputes are over. People have gotten all their family issues out of their system, and they’ve all retreated into their own corners,” she says. “What we see a lot of, though, are late-night cries for help, suicide attempts and some very, very lonely people. It is sad.”
Josh Miller, training analyst for the 911 Communications Center at OKCPD, also spent most of his career working on popular holidays, sometimes coming home to an empty house.
“My wife and I met when I started my career, so she was accustomed to it. But there were a lot of years that I missed out on the big family gatherings where you see your cousins, aunts and uncles only once a year during holidays,” he says. “Sometimes, my wife would go back home to see her family, and I was left here alone. You learn to work around it, but on a personal side, you feel a little lonely rolling into work on Christmas when it feels like the whole world is with their families.”
The bright side is the outpouring of support from the community, however. Area businesses sometimes send platters of food to the police station or boxes of cupcakes to brighten up the day for those who are away from family.
“The citizens are really good to us,” Suzanne says. “They bring food to the station during the holidays, and that is hugely appreciated.”