Family Ties: How First Responders Spend the Holidays
For many people, it’s easy to forget that spending the holidays with family is not a foregone conclusion for everyone. We often take for granted that there’s a choice, which isn’t the case with first responders who, like many people, have to show up for duty, regardless of when it falls on the calendar.
The difference with firefighters is that, unlike most other jobs, they don’t even get to go home at the end of an eight- or 10-hour shift and salvage what’s left of the day. Their shifts last 24 hours. They are a resilient bunch, however, and manage to keep spirits bright with some fine traditions of their own.
At Station 51 in Cocoa Beach, fire personnel that find themselves working during Thanksgiving or Christmas don’t need to worry about missing out on spending it with their loved ones. Like stations all across America, they invite family members to join them in what many consider their second home.
Deputy Fire Chief Mark Austin shared how he and the rest of the crew at Station 51 handle holidays, and it just might surprise you how adaptable and inclusive they are.
How do you and the crew handle holidays away from home when you’re on duty at the station?
We plan to have a meal together as a single station, or we might invite one of the other stations to come join us, if it’s a smaller station, to have a bigger group and share some of the load of planning the meal.
And sometimes—where I retired from, Orlando Fire, we’d invite the neighboring jurisdiction, one of their stations that was close to us. We would invite them and have the same kind of meal a family would have at home.
But we’d also invite the families of those people that were on duty that day to come up to the station and make it a nice family meal there. We do the same thing here at Station 51.
I’m assuming everybody probably takes turns on preparing certain things, kind of like a potluck-type thing?
Oh, yeah, exactly. Usually, there’s a master chef in the station, and he’ll do the main thing, be it a turkey or standing rib roast or something like that. That person is the master coordinator. We also, fortunately, have a nice, big commercial kitchen.
And then some of the families will bring a dessert or a side dish to go along with the meal, but the main things we usually take care of at the station.
Our headquarters station is relatively new, and during storm events and evacuations due to hurricanes, we keep a certain number of people here for City Operations. That includes the city manager, mayor, police department personnel, as well as up-staffing our personnel, which brings the total to almost 40 people.
During these events, we coordinate the meals leading up to these things to make sure everybody is tended to throughout.
Are there any kind of traditions that you have with the local community such as outreach programs or homeless projects for those less fortunate?
I do know that here in Cocoa Beach our Benevolent is very good at adopting a family during the Christmas holidays and such. They will adopt a family that we hear of or come across that might need some support during that time and help with Christmas with food and gifts, things like that. They donate to the family to help get them through the holiday season.
That’s fantastic. How are they brought to your attention? Are they folks you’ve maybe run across on your rounds, or do people from the community maybe volunteer potential picks for that kind of a situation? How does that come about?
Yes, exactly. We will find out sometimes through running an alarm or somebody will bring them to our attention through word of mouth. We’ll hear something and address it like that.
Is there anything else you can share with us as far as how firefighters in Cocoa Beach deal with holiday situations away from home or helping the community?
One of the things that’s done in particular here in Cocoa Beach is during the Thanksgiving weekend—besides Thanksgiving taking place, they also have the art festival that takes place here in Cocoa Beach, and during that time is when the firefighters do their fundraiser.
It’s the Chili Fest, and they cook chili and sell it during the art festival. They’ve been doing that 32 years, and it’s a very popular thing. We set up tables and chairs while the art show is going on. People can stroll by and get chili and a water or a soda or get a hot dog, and it’s a great fundraiser for us.
We get a lot of support from the community to help to sponsor that, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful event, and the guys and their families do an outstanding job. The wives come in, and they help with the cooking and selling and keeping the area clean.
It’s just a great opportunity for the fire department to come into contact with our community and visit with them, too.
What do the proceeds end up going to?
The proceeds end up going to the Benevolent Association. That’s some of the funding we use to help fund those families in need.
To give you an idea of the scope of their job, the City of Cocoa Beach Fire Department serves approximately 3.5 square miles of residential and commercial area as well as providing basic fire protection for the “Thousand Islands” area adjacent to Cocoa Beach in the Banana River.
As far as the citizenry, the CBFD serves a population of approximately 11,200 year-round residents as well as an influx of seasonal residents, tourists and visitors, which can increase the area’s population to an average of 30,000 people a day during the tourist season.
That’s a lot to take on, but the dedicated firefighters there seem to have it well in hand.
If you’d like to support CBFD in any of its charitable endeavors, contact the department for ideas on where your assistance could best be utilized.
Cocoa Beach Fire Department Station 51
50 S. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach, Florida