As Oak Park and River Forest residents sit down to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow with family and friends, few are likely to give more than a passing thought to those who have forgone many of the pleasures of the day to provide a protective umbrella over the rest of us.
For most, Thanksgiving means warm gatherings and festive celebration. But emergencies pay little heed to either calendar or clock, so it’s essential someone be there, ready to respond as needed. Thursday will be a work day for police sergeant Art Borchers; firefighters Dan McInerny, John Bentel and Kurt Bohlmann; and dispatcher Jennifer Bonnilla, along with over a hundred of their colleagues. While it’s not duty in some far-off land or on some ship cutting through foreign waters, it’s a sacrifice for themselves and their families.
Firemen work a 24-hour shift, starting around 7 a.m. Police and dispatchers work one of three watches of eight hours each. Each will experience the day from different perspectives. But there are as many similarities as differences. To some extent, the type of people attracted to police and fire work seem to be more accepting of the sacrifices. It comes with the job, they all say.
“You know when you get hired that it’s going to happen,” said Bentel.
“You accept that, or get out,” said Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna, who has worked his share of holidays over the past 32 years.
Most police and fire personnel and their families do just that?#34;accept it as part of the job and make alternative plans. This year Borchers will celebrate with his family the Sunday before Christmas, as will McInerney and Bentel.
On the job for 2 years, she’s still getting used to the sacrifices, but is adapting.
“It’s disappointing,” she admitted. “It’s hard to get used to.”
Bonilla, who hasn’t started a family of her own yet, is particularly sympathetic of those with children. Borchers, the father of two, agrees. The toughest part of the job, he said, is “facing your little kids who don’t understand why daddy has to go to work.”
Sometimes they’re able to cheat the schedule a little bit. Scianna keeps a faded 30-year-old color photograph on his office bulletin board. It shows his then-2-year-old, PJ-clad son, Sal, sitting on his knees, looking on as Scianna’s patrol partner, Jimmy Leahy (now retired), sits on an ottoman in full uniform, vest on, holding out a gift to the boy. The two young officers had stopped by to steal a few moments so Scianna could watch his young son unwrap his Christmas presents.
Borchers recalled similar holiday moments, stopping by home for a quick few minutes with his kids, one ear listening to his police radio.
Firemen, with their 24-hour shifts, are able to bring family to them on occasion. Usually, though, they create their own celebration with co-workers.
“When you work with a group of people long enough, they kind of become like family,” said McInerney.
The day is made easier, Bonilla agreed, by the fact that everyone on her shift consider themselves “pretty good friends.”
Like his counterparts in River Forest, McInerney will observe “holiday routine” this Thursday.
“We come in, set up our trucks, check everything, then [basically] have the rest of the day off,” he said. “We’re basically cooking all day.”
“There’s never a shortage of food during the holidays,” he added, smiling.
All in all, they say, it’s a reasonably good substitute for family.
“When you work here with a group of people long enough, they kind of become an extended family,” said McInerney.
Of course, any station house festivities must take second place to calls for service. All of those working holidays hope for a calm and peaceful day, both for themselves and those they’re serving. Unfortunately, one of the toughest aspects of working holidays for cops, firefighters and dispatchers is the unique window they have into the sort of human unpleasantness and even tragedy that never seem to take a holiday.
“If there’s an interruption to our holiday, it’s an interruption for someone else,” said McInerney.
Those interruptions can leave people suddenly homeless during what should be a joyous time. Bentel, a 26-year veteran of the River Forest department, and Bohlmann, a 14-year veteran, have only a few holiday horror stories to tell, which they’re thankful for. Most involved house fires. But they dealt with a particularly heart-rending situation several years ago, just across the border in Maywood. After the fire was struck, firefighters engaged in what’s termed “salvage and overhaul,” basically clearing out whatever can be saved. The men tried their best to save the family’s Christmas presents, carefully lining them up on the front lawn.
“We tried to get the gifts that weren’t damaged out first,” said Bentel, shaking his head.
Sometimes, fortunately, the calls are humorous. Bentel recalled one man, who was, let’s say, overflowed with the holiday spirit. “He couldn’t shut off the gas by his stove,” said Bentel. So we did it for him.”
Fire isn’t the only thing that can destroy a holiday.
“The [calls] I hate are [when] people come back home … and they find their houses burglarized,” said Borchers.
Domestic disturbance calls can be just as bad, noted Scianna.
“They can be real knock-down, drag-out fights,” he said.
The trick, noted Borchers, is to emotionally separate the behavior you’re dealing with from the holiday itself.
“When you go into a domestic,” he said, “you try to take the holiday out of it.”
It can be just as tough emotionally on the people who take the phone calls.
“All of us have been on the phone with somebody who was hurt or hysterical,” said Bonilla. “It’s a horrible thing to hear.”
For all their personal sacrifices and the unpleasant occurrences, most police and fire personnel say there are some real positives to working a holiday. For the most part the people they encounter on holidays are extra appreciative of their efforts.
Bohlmann and Bentel recalled one New Year’s Eve, when they were out clearing snow from around fire hydrants. People were driving by, waving and wishing them a Happy New Year.
“We’ve got great residents,” said Bentel, grinning.
“People are extra friendly on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” noted Scianna. “They realize you’re out there protecting them.”
“It’s a nice time to be out with the public,” said McInerney.