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First responders balance 911 and Thanksgiving Day


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For those who work on big holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, celebrating the day on-duty is a challenge but one with solutions ranging from in-station cooking to food drop-offs from family or supporters.

For this Thanksgiving, firefighters in larger departments were doing their own cooking augmented with extras brought from home. Plan A for some police was taking advantage of breaks in the action long enough for a sit-down meal together or even to run home for a while, if officers lived close to their beats.

At Rowan University, students have staffed a volunteer emergency medical services unit for more than four decades. The unit is a rarity among “first responder” units, because Thanksgiving is a day off as students head off their Glassboro campus to their homes.

“However, myself and many of our student volunteers are not strangers to spending the holidays on shift,” Rowan EMS Assistant Chief Maribeth Novsak said.

The Rowan unit does observe Thanksgiving as a group. They gathered at their station a week before Thanksgiving for a traditional potluck dinner, with a serial showing of classic Christmas movies as entertainment.

“A lot of students on campus do go home for Thanksgiving, so there’s not many people here,” Novsak said. “And that’s why we can get away with going out of service for those 24 hours. But they usually will come back on Friday, and we’ll be here Friday, Saturday, and through the rest of the weekend.”

Novsak usually makes the turkey, a big one given there are 53 EMS members on average. Besides turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes, the table also may be set with Indian and Hispanic foods.

“We do still have the traditional Thanksgiving foods,” Novsak said. “But we have a very diverse squad. So, we go with whatever anybody wants to bring. It’s whatever good, hardy foods anybody wants to bring and share.”

Fire company size matters celebrating Thanksgiving

Every fire, police, and medical response unit looks for a way to share in some portion the holiday. How varies with the job and the size of the work force, and sometimes shift to shift.

Vineland Fire Chief Luigi Tramontana Jr. said this Thanksgiving at fire headquarters was planned with a family brunch and then an evening meal for the shift. Career firefighters are based at the headquarters.

“And it’s different every year because it’s a different shift every year,” Tramontana said. “And people come and go, so there’s no set tradition.”

On the other hand, Vineland EMS has a settled Thanksgiving practice.  

“Chief Kelly Soracco and her supervisors come in at around 4 in the morning, and they make breakfast for the outgoing shift and breakfast for the oncoming shift,” he said.

Of course, forks drop when a call comes in. And the fate of the food?

“It gets cold,” Tramontana said. “The first thing you do is shut the stove off so the firehouse doesn’t burn down.”

Mike Lippincott, chief of the mixed career-volunteer Millville department, said Thanksgiving observance has changed over the years as staffing and duties evolved. Only one or two people might have been on duty 25 years ago, he said,

“That was different, because maybe somebody from the family would fix a plate, bring it to you at the firehouse,” Lippincott said. “But over time, as we’ve increased the full-time staff, and then since we brought EMS on, which has added four more people every day working, even just on non-holidays, we’re seeing more communal meals.”

Lippincott said a further complication for first responder families is some have multiple members in uniform, often in different jobs, adding schedule conflicts for arranging one, big, sit-down meal whatever the holiday.

“Of course, I’m off on holidays now,” Lippincott said. “But my wife is a nurse. My daughter’s a nurse. Her husband is a police officer. My son is a corrections officer his girlfriend is a nurse.

“So, we sit down every beginning of November and look at who’s working Christmas and Thanksgiving and what days they’re off,” he said. “And then, we actually plan our family holidays. So, this year, our family Thanksgiving is going to be on Saturday, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.”

A big meal also is tradition at the Deptford Township Fire Department, another organization of mixed career and volunteer members.

Acting Battalion Chief Frank Battaglia said career units take Thanksgiving Day shifts, although volunteers can come in if they wish.

“It’s not like a normal day, but we’ll get together and cook,” Battaglia said. “We’ll cook breakfast. We’ll cook a lunch.  And sometimes, some place will even donate some food to us while we’re in the middle of answering calls. Some holidays are slow. Some holidays are very busy.”

Twenty-three years ago, when Battaglia shifted from a volunteer to a paid firefighter, volunteers would handle Thanksgiving shifts. The lineup switched over the last decade to career firefighters working the holiday, he said.

“During the normal week, everybody brings their lunch,” Battaglia said. “But on a holiday, everybody will get together. Like I said, we’ll do breakfast. We’ll do bacon and eggs. Thanksgiving, we may go a full meal, you know, for like a lunch. And then, 6 o’clock, still early enough for the guys that will go home … and still have a dinner.”

Police look for quiet day and night to partake

In Camden city, Discovery House Ministries donated bag Thanksgiving lunches to police last year. The organization is run by the Rev. Michael Mannion, the department’s chaplain.

Lt. Vivian Coley said the Fraternal Order of Police donated lunches for Thanksgiving 2021.

“You’re always able to take a break,” Coley said. “If you live in the city, then you can always go home. I’m one of the officers that’s fortunate enough. When I started, I lived in the city and then, if I took my break, I would take my break at home. I’m able to go, have some dinner, and then go back on the streets.”

Franklin Township Police Chief Matt DeCesari said some holidays can get out of hand. “When you’re dealing with holidays and families getting together, there’s sometimes alcohol involved,” he said.

“A lot of the times, our residents are very generous to us and will drop stuff off for officers to eat,” DeCesari said. “And the officers are able to sit around when they have down time and spend some time together, especially if they don’t live in town.

“But a lot of our officers do live in town,” he said. “And are fortunate enough that … we do allow them to go home to be with their families at least for a little bit and respond from their homes, if they do live in town.”

Joe Smith is a N.E. Philly native transplanted to South Jersey 36 years ago, keeping an eye now on government in South Jersey. He is a former editor and current senior staff writer for The Daily Journal in Vineland, Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, and the Burlington County Times.

Have a tip? Reach out at jsmith@thedailyjournal.com. Support local journalism with a subscription.

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