Not home for the holidays

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ON CALL – Firefighter Sandy Garden responds to the 100 block of East 2nd

By Todd Coyne – North Shore Outlook
Published: December 21, 2011 12:00 PM
Updated: December 21, 2011 1:50 PM

For some it’s a matter of time constraints, for others it’s distance and for still more it’s the demands of a job.

For emergency workers like North Vancouver city firefighters, whether or not they get to be home for the holidays is all luck of the draw.

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Fire Capt. Bruce Allen can’t count how many Christmas Days he’s put in at the city fire hall but he does know one thing for sure: This will be his last.

Capt. Allen will retire from the fire service in January.

But first he’s got an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift on Christmas Day.

“You hope for it to be quiet but you never know,” Allen said, recalling a massive deliberately-set house fire he attended on Christmas Day in the mid-1990s. “But for the most part it’s usually pretty quiet.”

Because his teenage daughters are nearly grown up, Capt. Allen said working Christmas Day isn’t as difficult as it once was.

“We will open presents at night instead of that morning,” he said. “The kids will probably be doing something with their boyfriends and that kind of thing for Christmas anyway.”

Oftentimes veterans like Capt. Allen will try to trade for Christmas Day shifts so firefighters with young kids can be at home. Firefighters like seven-year veteran Tyler Lentsch.

“A lot of the guys with no kids or the guys whose kids are 15, 16, 17 — a lot of those guys will work for guys if they can to let those guys go home that have the younger kids,” said Lentsch, 30. “Especially the single guys, they’re always asking guys if anyone’s looking for it off.”

Lentsch has worked the Christmas Day shift before. But this year, with an 18-month-old son at home, he’ll work the Christmas Eve graveyard shift from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. and should make it home in time to see his son reap Santa’s spoils.

Christmas Day is a shift like any other, Lentsch said, although occasionally with a more relaxed training routine. Sometimes with a little ball hockey.

“It depends on the captain. It depends on who’s in charge as an officer that day. Some guys like to do it, some guys don’t,” Lentsch said.

When Capt. Allen’s in charge, it’s game on.

“We’ll move the trucks around and make some room on the apparatus floor and play floor hockey. We’ve done that in the past to kill a few hours here and there. Anything for our cardio exercise.”

And since the 10 to 12 city firefighters staffing the hall at all hours can’t be home for Christmas, their families are allowed to visit and bring Christmas to them.

“The captain’s actually allowing our families to come on the 24th night to the fire hall and visit,” Lentsch said, “He’s allowing everyone to come down and say hi and sit for a bit, but obviously if we get a call we have to go.”

Last year, the chef from the Pinnacle Hotel at the Pier brought a whole turkey dinner to the station, replete with gravy, seasonal vegetables, stuffing, cranberry sauce, cheesecake and enough mayo and sliced bread for turkey sandwich leftovers.


Certainly firefighters aren’t the only one’s keeping watch over the community for the holidays. First responders of all stripes have duties to fulfill that don’t stop when the calendar winds down to year’s end.

But unlike full-time first responders, the all-volunteer North Shore Rescue squad doesn’t know their schedule in advance. In fact, they only work on days off from their 9-to-5s and for their selfless dedication and hard work, they are not compensated.

North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones has been on “many, many” dangerous rescues out in the mountains above the North Shore on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, he told The Outlook.

Overzealous revellers fall from cliffs, hikers get hung up in tree wells and backcountry skiers and snowshoers tend to find avalanches.

Jones recalled a 2007 Christmas Day rescue in which a couple went out backcountry skiing Christmas Eve in the Mount Seymour area but quickly found themselves in severe avalanche terrain above Theta Lake.

“They survived an avalanche that night and the next morning were able to descend into a gully and get one cellphone call out saying they were trapped somewhere east of the Indian Arm,” Jones said. “Then a marine fog system came in and totally blanketed everything with heavy fog and we had to revert to a land-based response.”

That meant rousing nine members of the North Shore Rescue team from their warm beds in the wee hours of Christmas morning, strapping on skis and retracing the potentially fatal missteps the couple had taken through avalanche-prone terrain.

In all, 15 members of the rescue squad would miss all the holiday festivities, from opening presents with their families to Christmas dinner, while the difficult mountain rescue dragged on from early morning on the 25th until well after midnight.

And while Jones admits it was a highly frustrating situation for the rescuers involved, the rescue turned out much better than anyone could have expected when on their way out, rescuers actually came across another stranded skier, who Jones said would not have survived much longer in the elements.

“No one knew he was out and he didn’t know what he was doing, just flailing away in chest-deep snow,” Jones said. “It was just by luck that we even came across him in the middle of nowhere because he would have been a popsicle stick soon. Believe me, this was his Christmas present.”

For young North Shore Rescue newcomers like Mike Sample and Simon Jackson, who’ve both been volunteering with the team for just over two years, it’s tough to leave their young families at home whenever they go out on a call, but especially around the holidays.

Both men will be on call this Christmas, as will any NSR member who’s not traveling for the holidays, and both said that the most important thing when leaving their families for a call is making up the time with them later.

“We both did a lot of outdoor stuff before,” said Jackson, who has a wife and a one-year-old son. “But the difference is this is not planned and you obviously can’t take your family with you.”

“It has a big social cost too,” Sample said, adding that it’s not just family but friends who suffer around the holidays too.

“Our families have been extremely forgiving,” Jones said, getting the last word. “Essentially for a lot of us, we’re treated like the big kid of the family. The big kid that’s sometimes there and sometimes not.”

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