At a Metrobus garage in Southeast Washington yesterday, the smell of roast turkey mingled with diesel fumes, and the employee lounge morphed into a festive cafeteria.

Vats of seafood salad and potato salad buried the lunch tables. The Ping-Pong table held dozens of cakes, pies and cookies. And a row of buffet dishes included glistening slices of turkey (roasted, fried and smoked), chicken and baked ham.

As the buses rolled in, driver Francine Bidgell pushed up her uniform sleeves, brandished her carving knife and got to work.

"We need another tray!" she shouted, sawing away at one ham while driver Tracy Rawls waited to slide her another.

It may have been two days early, but with more than 200 stomachs to fill, the annual Thanksgiving potluck for the Metrobus drivers, mechanics and supervisors was about to begin.

For many families, tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast will mean chowing down at home surrounded by loved ones.

But for employees of workplaces open on holidays -- hospitals, public transit systems, airports, tech operations, firehouses -- the turkey dinner often takes place on the job.

"This is our second home," said Larisa Golding, a patient care director at Inova Alexandria Hospital, who is organizing a Thanksgiving potluck for the 52-bed intermediate care unit and the eight-bed neurovascular unit. "If we can't be with our families, then we can celebrate here."

For some on the job, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner may come down to a few bites of sausage stuffing before rushing out to douse someone else's turkey fire, a plate of ham before the bus run to Capitol Hill or green beans almondine scarfed down before another ambulance screams as it reaches the emergency room doors.

"I'm kinda hoping there's not going to be too many interruptions when we sit down to eat," said Capt. Jay Iacone of Merrifield Fire and Rescue Station 30 in Fairfax County.

Nonetheless, Iacone is braced for plenty of calls tomorrow from people who run afoul of their bird and set a kitchen or deck ablaze. (Note: Do not deep-fry your turkey on a wooden deck, especially not one covered with autumn leaves.)

One year, the Merrifield fire station's medic had just lifted his first forkful to his mouth when he was called out.

"He was not a happy camper, sitting in the firehouse all day, smelling the cooking and then not getting to eat," Iacone said.

As with most Thanksgiving meals enjoyed at home, workplace feasts tend to focus on the traditional. The Kentland Volunteer Fire Company in Landover, for example, plans the usual turkey-stuffing-gravy-pie spread, with bacon-wrapped scallops to start.

"Everyone pitches in," said Fire Chief Mike Mattison. "Some people clear, some people cook. Some people are cooks in training."

Workplace dinners can be elaborately planned affairs, where cooks take pride in awing guests with culinary creations.

"The new tradition at my station is pumpkin cheesecake instead of pumpkin pie," Iacone said. He favors a recipe from Cook's Illustrated magazine, an elegant cheesecake featuring a pecan-graham cracker crust and bourbon in the filling. "But the alcohol in the bourbon will burn out," he added hastily.

Ethnic dishes are all the rage at the Inova Alexandria potluck, where the 109 employees on the units represent 22 cultures, Golding said. This year, Filipino employees plan to provide pancit (noodles) and adobo, a garlicky meat dish. Workers with roots in Ethiopia are bringing curried chicken.

To avoid having 14 Jell-O molds and no stuffing, organization and discipline are de rigueur.

At the Metro Southeastern division bus garage -- where the Thanksgiving feast is so popular that it takes place before the big day so those who are not working on Turkey Day can participate -- a five-person food committee started organizing weeks ago. Committee members decided on quantities and posted sign-up sheets.

The results are always bounteous.

"Cake and pies," said one driver, striding by and handing operations supervisor Gerald Collins a jammed plastic bag. He stared at the crowded Ping-Pong table.

"Tell you what we can do," he said, making an executive decision. "We can stack." Piling plastic-wrapped slices of sweet potato pie on top of one another, he slipped the new offerings onto the table.

"They have no sense when it comes to this," said driver Charles Washington III, admiring the bounty. "They go all out."

After a blessing, everyone headed for the serving line. The mechanics went first because they had to get back to work quickly.

At a table, driver Brian Douglas bulldozed his way through the buffet line of seafood salad, tossed salad, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, turkey and baked beans. Then he went back for dessert.

"They have everything that can be eaten out there," he said, motioning at the tables, still laden with food.

Staff writer Tamara Jones contributed to this report.

Metrobus employees Tracy Rawls and Mason Waid II scoop up salad at a pre-Thanksgiving potluck in Southeast Washington.From left, Gerald Collins, Teri Crosby and Latanya Pickens set up for the Metrobus Thanksgiving potluck.