Edmonton emergency teams dreaming of a quiet Christmas

As Edmonton's workforce grinds to a near-halt over Christmas, the city's first responders are caught in one of their busiest seasons.

Police, firefighters and emergency medical staff working over holidays ask Edmontonians to be safe

While most Edmontonians slow down for the holiday season, work for the city's first responders picks up. 2:21

As Edmonton's workforce grinds to a near-halt over Christmas, the city's first responders are caught in one of their busiest seasons.

Certain types of calls to police, fire rescue and EMS can increase over the holidays — while firefighters are wary of dry Christmas trees and overheated lights, police and paramedics warn of impaired driving after holiday parties.

At the hospital, a little extra empathy

People streamed through the doors of the University of Alberta Hospital's emergency clinic on Dec. 23.

The number of patients arriving at the hospital always spikes before Christmas, emergency room nurse Katelyn Toal says. 

"It's hard to admit people, especially before Christmas, knowing that they're going to be spending Christmas in the hospital," she says.

"You just try to have a little extra empathy for those people."

Toal wears a festive green ribbon wrapped around her stethoscope, a jingle bell attached to the end. 

She looks into the ambulance bay, where emergency crews are disinfecting and loading gurneys. A Santa hat flashes red from behind a windshield.

Her colleague, Thai Nguyen, directs one of the ambulances into a parking space. He has worked almost every Christmas since joining AHS as an emergency medical technician six years ago. 

Thai Nguyen has worked almost every Christmas since joining AHS as an Emergency Medical Technician. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Days like Dec. 24 and 25 no longer hold the meaning they used to, he says. Instead, Nguyen and his wife celebrate Christmas on other days that fit their schedules.

When he's at work, Nguyen turns to his team — especially for the calls he knows will tear apart another family's holiday.

"We really rely on each other," he says.

"We lean on each other to support each other through the hard times of working over Christmas."

Festive at the fire hall

Staffing doesn't pare down at Edmonton's fire stations, either.

On-duty firefighters at Station 1 spend time between calls together in their common room.

A plastic Christmas tree competes with fluorescent lights, gummy worms draped haphazardly from its branches.

"We're so safe even our plastic tree gets watered," one of the firefighters jokes.

Of course the tree's lights are fire-safe, adds their platoon chief Dwayne Smith. 

"We make it as fun as possible because you are away from your family," he says about holiday shifts at the station.

"We make it as fun as possible because you are away from your family," says Dwayne Smith, 3 Platoon Chief for Edmonton Fire Rescue, about working holiday shifts. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Smith has worked half the Christmases of his 35-year career as a firefighter. 

Responding to house fires is especially difficult when they leave families displaced during the holidays, he says.

"It's challenging for the staff but we're doing the best that we can to try and mitigate that situation and keep people as safe as possible."

When team support isn't enough, Smith says Edmonton fire rescue also offers counseling to its members.

Police a 'tight-knit' group

As Edmonton settles in for a snowy night, Constables Matthew O'Mara and Matt Roucek climb into their police car.

The pair — both fathers — are working overnight shifts during the holidays.

"As police, we're a pretty tight-knit group and they're kind of like your second family," O'Mara says.

"He can tolerate me," Roucek clarifies with a grin.

"He puts up with me," EPS Const. Matt Roucek jokes about working Christmas shifts with his shift partner in Edmonton. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

That camaraderie helps pass the night, O'Mara says. The holiday hours are punctuated by radio calls about domestic disturbances and impaired driving. 

Time with his family becomes more valuable after responding to others' emergencies, he adds

"It just kind of helps me appreciate what I have and it helps put some things in perspective for me."

'Just please don't drink and drive'

Regardless of uniform, the city's first responders are all warning Edmontonians against impaired driving this Christmas.

"Don't drink and drive," Nguyen says. "Use Uber, use cabs, call us if there's any emergencies."

On behalf of Edmonton Fire Rescue, Smith asks the same.

"If you do that, then we don't have to respond and everyone has a very safe and joyful Christmas," he says.

Officers O'Mara and Roucek agree — they dread the thought of responding to a crash scene.

"You have so many other options, just please don't drink and drive," O'Mara says.

Roucek nods beside his partner, before extending a holiday greeting to others on the Christmas shift.

"We're not the only ones working over Christmas," he says. "Everybody's doing their job.

"Just take care of each other today."