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Christmas can still deliver tragedy, so Greater Victoria first responders remain on alert

As many are off and celebrating, first responders still face difficult calls during the holidays
For firefighters, including Oak Bay’s Aiden Wells (left) and Jason Ahokas, working through the holidays is just part of the job description. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

The Christmas season brings joy to many, but it’s also a time when a lot of people struggle. And although some might celebrate on the 25th, tragedy doesn’t take a holiday.

So for those tasked with responding at a moment’s notice, Christmas is just another day.

Working through Christmas, holidays and other special occasions is just a normal part of the job for Greater Victoria’s firefighters.

“We’re ready and able to respond on Christmas just as we would be on any day of the year,” Oak Bay’s acting Assistant Chief Jon Popham said.

The number of calls doesn’t really change during the holidays, but as Oak Bay firefighter Kris Malinosky noted, the number of calls related to suicide and substance use emphasizes how people are struggling at this time of year.

“It’s an emotional time of year,” he said. “Christmas is hard for people.”

The shift-work nature of their profession means firefighters can go from being with loved ones to responding to a heavy call just hours apart – something Jason Ahokas, another firefighter with the department, has experienced firsthand on a Christmas Day shift.

“Come night shift … it was a tough one,” Ahokas said. “We all want to celebrate, but at the same time, life goes on and people experience some tough situations out there.”

Although it can be difficult, it also comes with a level of appreciation. “It’s a time to appreciate your family and be thankful for what you’ve got,” Popham said. “It’s made even that much more obvious when you see somebody who maybe isn’t having a very good day on Christmas.”

Besides some added decorations and sometimes getting a special meal, Christmas is a pretty normal day at the Oak Bay station. But the firefighters do show their giving spirit on the day. The night shift Christmas Eve will hang around for a couple of extra hours so those with young families, who are on the day shift, have some extra time to see their little ones tear open gifts on Christmas morning.

“It is kind of our second family here,” Ahokas said.

Health care workers are reminded of the brevity and fragility of life on a daily basis and that’s amplified when being with loved ones is highlighted around Christmas, said Brad Cameron, B.C. Emergency Health Services’ manager of patient care delivery for Greater Victoria.

One of the worst calls Cameron ever responded to was on Christmas Day. A father, who was walking with his two kids in a Richmond crosswalk, was hit by a driver who had been drinking. The father tried to throw his kids out of harm’s way, but his daughter was hit and killed. Later that day, Cameron was sent to do a hospital transfer of a patient, who turned out to be that father he had treated hours earlier. The father recognized Cameron and asked how his kids were doing.

“I was devastated,” Cameron said. He then told the man that his daughter didn’t make it.

Knowing that family’s life would never be the same and with the father’s kids being about the same age as his own, Cameron said the story was another reminder of “how important relationships are.” He said seeing tragedy and loss every day is difficult for paramedics, and it gets even harder when times like the Christmas season emphasize the importance of family.

In the over 30 years he worked as a paramedic, Cameron said Christmas is a normal day call-wise but the mornings are always quiet. Year after year, that quietness proved to be due to people – especially older folks – experiencing serious pain and issues but holding off on seeking medical help so they don’t interrupt Christmas morning festivities.

“We get there and realize they’ve been having heart attacks and they’ve probably been having one for two or three hours,” Cameron said “That’s common, we will see that every Christmas.”

He noted people are doing themselves more harm when they delay seeking care, as it usually results in worse outcomes.

Although many people are off during the holidays, emergencies still happen and someone needs to be there to pick up the phone. Locally, one of those people getting information to first responders is E-Comm 911 call taker Jennifer Fahlman.

“Each day can be a whirlwind of multiple different calls so it doesn’t matter if it’s the holidays or a regular day, you have to be ready for anything to happen,” the call taker said, adding that it’s not weird having to be alert as many others are relaxing.

“I do love the line of work that I’m in,” Fahlman said. “Being here makes me feel a sense of purpose. We need to be there at all times to help others so that we can keep our community safe.”

READ: $5M donation means better care for Island residents at Greater Victoria hospitals

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Working through holidays is no issue for E-Comm 911 call taker Jennifer Fahlman, who finds a sense of purpose in helping keep the community safe. (Photo courtesy of E-Comm)

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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