Technology, training and time-outs: The life of a firefighter

Technology, training and time-outs: The life of a firefighter
Martin Hurley and Joe O'Keeffe, Members of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, during Friday Checks on the Low Pressure Air Mats. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

It’s a risky business saving people and animals from fires, rivers and any other calamity that unfortunately befalls the citizens of Cork.

Thanks to technological advancements firefighters are now better equipped to deal with whatever their job throws at them in a safer capacity.

Among the advancements is an electric-powered car for responding to cardiac arrest incidents, battery powered equipment such as hydraulic cutters and fire retardant flashguards which protect a firefighter’s face from the fire.

Acting Third Officer Gerard Ryan said in the past they would get blisters on their cheeks and ears if they were in a fire too long and it was one of the signs to get out.

However now, with the development of new technology, firefighters need to recognise other signs that tell them they need to get out.

“You must know your own capabilities," Mr Ryan said.

“We can go further and longer into a fire now, so we need them to know that the kit is there to help them, but they are not invincible, they are not Superman.

“They need to know that the helmet will melt around their heads.” 

The crew has an entry control officer who simply monitors how long a person has been in the fire and stays in constant contact with the person inside.

“We can stay in a fire for up to 45 minutes without changing a cylinder. We can stay in longer, but we also need to turn the team around to make sure no one gets fatigued and to let the body breathe.” 

Alex O'Shea, Member of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, during Friday Checks on the Hydraulic Platform. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Alex O'Shea, Member of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, during Friday Checks on the Hydraulic Platform. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Other advancements include thermal cameras that allow them to find people in a dark and smoke-filled room and improved communication between the firefighters and the station officer and third officer with the duty officer, who remains at the station during an incident and liaises with the other emergency services as well as his own personnel.

As technology has improved, so has the quality of the services offered by the fire department.

Acting Station Officer Irene Wallace, who has been with the service for 23 years said when she started with the department a river rescue was done in uniform whereas now there is specific river rescue gear, which is designed to keep you dry in the river.

“Before you were just asked can you swim, given a rope and in you go. Then you swam out, rescued the person and swam back in your clothes. When we got out we were hosed down at the side of the road and brought back to the station.” 

Things have come on a long way since then. “We have fantastic gear now for river rescues and the lads are highly trained to retrieve someone from the river, swiftly and in a safe manner.

“We now have Swift Water Rescue Technicians with the best of gear; dry suits, boats, walkways and personal flotation devices.” 

Downtime 

When the lads are not out saving lives they are back at the station, preparing for all types of emergencies.

“Everyday is a training day,” Third Officer Ryan told the Evening Echo.

“The crew go out on a training drill period every morning and evening. We are constantly going over the skills because we have so many skills.” 

He said that the roles are constantly rotated in order to ensure everyone is practised at each skill.

“Everyone can’t get a go at everything in the one day, so the skills are rotated.” 

Senior firefighter Warren Forbes said the training that they do constantly challenge their thought process to keep the firefighters thinking independently and on their feet.

“A lot of the training we do takes you outside the box of the standard rescue and we look at what we could do in certain situations and you have to make judgement calls and based on experience, knowledge, training, that kind of thing.” 

As well as the practical work, the crew also attend a lecture every day given on a different topic as dictated by schedule and also follow a cleaning rota to ensure the station is kept in tip top shape.

Each officer is also responsible for cleaning their kit. Each officer has two suits and they have to follow a stringent process to ensure the valuable equipment is cleaned correctly.

“Each suit is worth €1,000, so they are not cheap,” Third Officer Ryan explained.

As well as maintaining the station the firefighters have a gym to keep in top physical shape and a mess room to relax when they are not dealing with emergencies.

Challenges 

Frank Kelleher, Member of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, working in the BA Compressor Room.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Frank Kelleher, Member of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, working in the BA Compressor Room.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Being a firefighter is undoubtedly a challenging role and not without its tough days, but Third Officer Ryan said the service has processes in place to deal with every eventuality.

“We have CISM: Critical Incident Stress Management now to deal with things. Before we used to have public debriefings where we would come back and talk about things, no rank, just talk about how people felt about things.

Third Officer Ryan said they still come back and have the tea and discuss what happened, but there is no blame.

“There can’t be blame, because in our jobs, you do your best and you do lose people.” 

Station Officer Wallace said at the start you do blame yourself, asking yourself what if I did this instead of that or what if we had done things that way. 

“It takes a certain type of person to mentally endure what we see, what we do, and what we physically endure.

“The fire department shapes you into a certain person and that is why the recruit training will bring you through and if you are not suitable then that is why people would leave if they don’t feel they are suitable for it.

“I can honestly say I have loved every minute of being here, I have had very hard times here, where sometimes I have gone home crying over a call I had been at, other times you go home feeling so proud, you be bursting with pride because you know you made a difference in someone’s life.

“The fact that you have made a difference in that person’s life it’s a win win situation that day, it’s a good day for us and again on the days where we don’t save people, it is heartbreaking and we have learned to deal with it through each other.”

The only woman in the station for 23 years

Ger Ryan, 3rd Officer and Irene Wallace, Station Officer. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Ger Ryan, 3rd Officer and Irene Wallace, Station Officer. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Acting Station Officer Irene Wallace has been with the fire service for the past 23 years and she has been the only female recruit in the station the entire time.

Station Officer Wallace said from a very young age she wanted to join the army, but through a series of fortunate events, found her way to Cork City’s Fire Department.

Due to her parents' involvement, Irene joined St John’s Ambulance at a young age, before moving into the Civil Defence and eventually the Fire Department.

Station Officer Wallace said she went through the training process at the age of 20, loved every bit of it and started working as a firefighter.

“It has always been great craic.

“I was lucky because I was always deeply involved in sport. As a result, I always got on as a team player which is very important and I became very good friends with some of the lads.

“Being the only girl made no difference because at the end of the day, I am a firefighter, we were treated equally, there was never ever special treatment given in any way, shape or form.

“If you could do the job, you deserved to be here, if I couldn’t do the job I would have left.” 

Station officer Wallace went on to become a driver in 2002 and drove all the appliances before moving onto the specialist appliances such as the rescue tenders and the platforms.

Then Irene became leading fire fighter and after that she was promoted to Sub officer and she had been acting Station Officer since April 2016.

Station Officer Wallace said over the years she has gotten very close with her crew.

“We are very invested in each other’s lives, it is like a second family here.

“I have no physical brothers, but I would count a lot of the lads here as my brothers.

“I would go to them for advice in my everyday life really, I know I can count on them for anything.”

When Irene was getting married in 2004, her second family insisted they were invited to the celebrations.

“The lads were saying to me you can’t have a hen night without us, so we had to have a hen night but all the lads came as well.” 

Despite being the only woman in the Cork City Fire Department, Station Officer Wallace said she hopes she does not leave behind a station full of lads when she does eventually retire from the service.

“I would have loved other girls to come in here and I was hoping that over the years, that there would be more women joining the fire service. And I hope in the near future, that there will be more girls joining the fire brigade because I would hate to retire out of here being on my own forever."

“I would like it and I do think it is a fantastic job to be in for women. It is a very rewarding job really, it's a feel good job that you know you have made a difference in somebody’s life."

Have you got what it takes to be a firefighter?

A diverse role that encapsulates a myriad of dangerous and deadly situations is probably the best way to describe the risky business of being a full-time firefighter, but adrenaline junkies need not apply for the position, according to Acting Third Officer Gerard Ryan.

The station, which is low on numbers, said they are likely to be recruiting soon, but those looking for a rush, are not likely to make it through the recruitment process.

Outlining the characteristics required in a firefighter, Third Officer Ryan said there were a number of things that they would look for in a candidate.

“Being a team player is the most important thing, you also have to be able to take direction, you must be adaptable, open minded and willing to learn.

Third Officer Ryan also said being trustworthy was a trait regarded as highly valuable in the fire service.

With regard to personalities, Third Officer Ryan said it takes all sort to make up a fire brigade.

“We need all different characters in here. This place wouldn’t succeed if we were all the same.

“Not everyone needs to be an A player, there are a number of roles within the service.” 

Tackling the issue of adrenaline junkies, Third Officer Ryan said they don’t want them.

“We don’t want people who are just in it for the buzz. That is not part of what we do. At the end of the day safety is paramount."

“If we are going into any incident the safety of our crews is the most important and if we are going to put our lives at risk, we want to do it in the safest manner possible.” 

Speaking about new recruits, Third Officer Ryan said candidates go through a long and lengthy process before they are apt and able to deal with an emergency situation in a confident and capable manner.

“At the start, they don’t even know they are making mistakes, then they reach the point where they know they are making mistakes, before moving on to the point where they won’t make any mistakes to the point where they can do it in their sleep.” 

Acting Station Officer Irene Wallace said when a recruit first comes in they are of course nervous.

“Like any walk of life, you get confident in anything when you have the skills. When you know better, you will do better.”

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