Christmas Day can be borrowed time for Garfield County firefighters, but they do eat well between calls

Glenwood Springs Firefighter Tucker grills chicken at the downtown firehouse Thursday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Santa and his little helpers call it Christmas Day. To firefighters, it’s just another work day.

To keep things festive, firehouses across Garfield County might try their hand at cooking prime rib. Kids come in and build gingerbread houses. Somebody may throw on a holiday flick.

Right when a call comes in, however, everyone’s hastily dressing into their bunker gear and screeching the engine out of the garage bay.

“When you get called out on Christmas, someone is having a way worse Christmas than you are,” Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson elaborated on Wednesday.

Holiday calls aren’t uncommon for fire districts in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale or western Garfield County. Just look at the average calls they answer per year. 

Glenwood alone saw its average call volume increase by 50% over the past 10 years. The department right now averages 6.3 calls per day, Tillotson said.

Colorado River Fire Rescue Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician Joseph Billings stands in his bunker gear at the station in Rifle on Wednesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Same story over at Colorado River Fire Rescue, a district that covers 851 square miles from Rifle to New Castle. CRFR Chief Leiff Sackett saw his year-to-date 911 calls grow by 6.8% from November 2021 to 2022. That’s 2,353 calls in 2021 to 2,513 in 2022.

“I think the most devastating ones are when someone has a fire on Christmas Day, or even on Christmas Eve, for that matter,” Tillotson said. “This is not the time of year when you want to have an incident like that going on.

“It’s impactful.”

Numbers may gnaw on the back of everyone’s minds when they’re on shift during the holidays, a time which can turn lonely for some firefighters working the 48 hours when Kris Kringle flies through town.

“Especially for firefighters with young families,” Tillotson said. “Even if you have the luxury of spending Christmas Eve with your spouse and children, you still have to get up and leave the house before the kids wake on Christmas Day.”

Making it merry

Firefighters may have mastered gearing up in less than three minutes flat. But they’ve also equally mastered cooking decent to pretty damn good food for large groups.

Or have they?

“Earlier in my career,” Tillotson reminisced, “when they first hit the market we did oil, deep-fried turkeys out on the apron and ended with a grease fire and big mess.”

Aside from this, some of the finest cooks you ever meet are people who have spent a lot of years in a fire station, Tillotson said.

Carbondale Fire Department crew members Deputy Chief Frank Nadell, left, and Capt. Ashley Buss Greene, admire some holiday treats on the kitchen counter at the Carbondale Firehouse on Wednesday, as Daniela Chissum, background, talks with other crew members.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Sackett specifically remembers a delicious, succulent ham one of the guys cooked one year.

“I don’t know what he did to it,” he said. “He put maraschino cherries on the side of it. It was one of the best hams I’ve ever eaten.” 

GSFD kicked off early Thursday afternoon with a good feast at their downtown firehouse. They grilled chicken outside on the second-floor balcony and cut fresh veggies on the kitchen counter. Meanwhile, Tillotson razzed a crew member for recently buying single-ply toilet paper.

Tillotson hopes the cheer and good food remains constant and uninterrupted like this on Christmas Day.

“It’s much like regular life,” Tillotson said of working on a holiday. “They’re preparing meals and hoping to get a chance to eat them before they have to go out on calls.”

Glenwood Springs Firefighter Tucker grills chicken at the downtown firehouse Thursday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District Public Information Officer Jenny Cutright said there’s about 5-6 firefighters scheduled on Christmas Day.

She said for holidays like this Carbondale keeps an open table, not just for the crew and their families, but for any of their members with nothing else going on.

“It’s pretty neat because these folks work 48 hours on and 96 off,” she said. “It’s like your family.”

CRFR Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician Joseph Billings gets to eat his Christmas Day meal uninterrupted.

“There are years when I’ve worked every single holiday,” he said. “This year I’ve pretty much gotten all of them off.”

Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tilotson smiles while waiting to each lunch at the downtown firehouse on Thursday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The years Billings missed out on can be a little tough.

“I’ve got two daughters, so you feel bad missing out on the fun the family’s having and watching them grow,” he said. “Those are things you just can’t get back.”

But firefighters signed up for this job, Billings said. Just because it’s Christmas Day doesn’t mean there’s no engines to check, workouts to do and accidents to cover.

“I still feel good that I can still provide the service to other people who are still trying to enjoy the holidays but may be experiencing something bad going on.”

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