Duty calls: How Routt County emergency responders balance work, family during the holidays | SteamboatToday.com

Duty calls: How Routt County emergency responders balance work, family during the holidays

Cody Owens, a former patrol officer with the Steamboat Springs Police Department who now works with the Routt County Sheriff's Office, gets a hug from kindergartner Eva Tormey while making cookies at Soda Creek Elementary School last Christmas. The holidays can be a difficult time of year for local first responders to navigate, but a sense of camaraderie and devotion to duty hold them together.
File photo/John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For many people, the holidays are a time to relax and gather with loved ones — albeit, with occasionally irritating relatives.  

But for emergency workers, this time of year is no different than any other. Crimes and injuries don’t stop just because it’s Christmas or New Year’s Eve, and first responders must be ready to answer calls for help. 

It is not an easy commitment, admitted Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen. With 31 years in law enforcement, he is no stranger to the tricky balance of work and family during the holidays.

“I spent many a Christmas morning not sitting by the fireplace watching my child open presents,” Christensen said. 

Such is the reality for law enforcement and firefighters, he added. While it may not be an ideal situation, the Steamboat community offers ample support. On Christmas, people brought turkeys and all the traditional fixings to the Combined Law Enforcement Center for officers and deputies to enjoy.

“The police officers eat really well,” Christensen said. “They are still eating some of the leftovers.”

Officers accept working holidays as part of the job, he said, something they signed up for when taking an oath to protect the community. That shared duty creates camaraderie among first responders. 

Sgt. JD Paul with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office put it this way: “I don’t think there’s anyone on the force you wouldn’t work with or give your life for.”

In such conditions, first responders create bonds with each other that resemble those of a tight-knit family, which makes working on holidays feel not so far from home. Joe Oakland, a firefighter with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, said his department enjoys a similar fellowship.

“I call these people my brothers and my sisters,” he said. 

Every evening, the crew working at the Mountain Fire Station prepares dinner together, assuming they are not responding to an incident. On Christmas Eve, the families of some firefighters join in on a special meal at the station. A call for service can always delay or temporarily disrupt the festivities. 

“Sometimes, dinner is cold; sometimes, dinner is burnt; sometimes, dinner is late,” said Oakland, but it is shared nonetheless. 

Fortunately for officers and deputies, Christmas tends to be a quieter time as far as call volume goes. On Dec. 25, police officers responded to 17 incidents, and deputies responded to five incidents, according to records.   

“New Year’s Eve is a little different,” Christensen said. 

That holiday tends to be one of the Police Department’s busiest nights. Last year, officers responded to 41 calls for service on New Year’s Eve. 

With that in mind, Christensen encourages people to plan ahead to have a sober driver take them to and from any celebrations. The Steamboat Springs Transit will have an expanded late-night bus service on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, buses will run ever 10 minutes with the last bus leaving downtown at 3:19 a.m.

To prepare for a spike in incidents, the Police Department conducts extra patrols, particularly around downtown bars. Christensen expects this New Year’s to be calmer than in previous years because the holiday falls in the middle of the work week. 

The fire department sees a spike in calls throughout much of the winter season, which Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli attributes to the influx of visitors. 

“It’s just a numbers game,” he said. “When you have this many people in town, you have that many more people who need help.”

For a father like Oakland, missing out on certain holiday traditions — watching his two young sons unwrap presents on Christmas or having a quiet meal at home — can be tough. His wife, Patty, is an emergency room nurse, which often means at least one of them has to work during the festivities. 

The two have discussed the situation with their boys, so they understand why they have to open presents early or follow other nontraditional family traditions. It helps that some of the younger firefighters without children or older firefighters whose children have grown up usually volunteer to work holidays, Oakland said.

The Police Department uses a similar arrangement, so officers can alternate which holidays they work throughout the year.

Other times, missing out on certain, special moments is unavoidable. 

“It’s not an easy thing all the time,” Oakland said. “I’d obviously like to be there, but someone has to be here.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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