Cork City Fire: Prepared for all kinds of disasters

Cork City Fire: Prepared for all kinds of disasters
Irene Wallace, Station Officer, with Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch member, Tim Mahoney, Swift Water Rescue Technician. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Fighting fires is just one of a number of critically important tasks Cork City’s firefighters can be asked to carry out any day of the week.

Acting station officer Irene Wallace, who has been with the service 23 years, told the Evening Echo, fires are just a percentage of the job.

“People’s perception is that the Fire Brigade goes to fires. They are not aware of the diverse skill set we hold.” 

Ger Ryan, 3rd Officer and Irene Wallace, Station Officer with Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Ger Ryan, 3rd Officer and Irene Wallace, Station Officer with Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

From road traffic accidents to cardiac arrests, flooding, river rescues and chemical incidents, Cork’s firefighters are trained and equipped to deal with a range of situations.

Acting third officer Gerard Ryan, who has been with the service 27 years, said: “When everyone else can’t do it, they call the Fire Brigade.

“Water coming down through electrics, smell of gas, ESB poles down, we are sent out.” 

Station Officer Wallace said the role often involves working with other agencies.

“We assist all the agencies, as well as them assisting us. We have a great relationship with the HSE, Coastguard and An Garda Siochana.

“We practice with them as well for major emergencies. There is great comradery among all the emergency services as a whole.” 

Manning the station 

The Cork City Fire Station is manned by 108 firefighters broken up into four watches: Blue, Red, Green and Amber.

The firefighters work in a shift pattern of 9am to 6pm and 6pm to 9am on weekdays with 24 hours shifts on the weekends.

For the type of work that is carried out by the service, both officers said their firefighters need to be in peak physical, mental and emotional condition when they come on duty.

Third officer Ryan said coming into work hungover is simply not an option. “Coming in hungover, wouldn’t be allowed. We would take something like that very seriously.

Members of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, Tim Mahoney, Swift Water Rescue Technician with Martin Hurley. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Members of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, Tim Mahoney, Swift Water Rescue Technician with Martin Hurley. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“The firefighters are working with hydraulic equipment and every one of them can be asked to drive an appliance so they must be under the professional limit, which is minus 20. They simply have to be on form.

The officer also told the Evening Echo bringing an illness into the station is not a clever thing to do and emotional issues such as being worried about family problems are usually teased out within the watch.

“If you bring a cold in here, then everyone will get it, it would go through the place like wildfire. We try not to bring in illness. If you feel something coming on, you wouldn’t come into work the next day.

Third Officer Ryan said the team look out for each other.

“If someone is worried we chat to them and see if we can help. We mind each other. If someone is off-form, it would be copped ten minutes into the shift.” 

Station officer Wallace said the crew works so closely together that they all know each other's triggers.

“I know how Ger drinks his tea and Ger could tell you what I like to eat and what I don’t like to eat. I think there are lads here that know more about me than my own husband. We live with each other.” 

Third officer Ryan said if someone has something on their mind you deal with it. “You might give a fella ten minutes or a job to do on his own to clear his head.

Station officer Wallace said the crew never fail to crack a member of the watch if they are off form.

“We always get it out of someone what is wrong.” 

Responding to a Call

“Coming on duty, you never know what you are going to face,” Acting Station Officer Irene Wallace said.

“You come in here and when the bells go down that is when the first call will start.

When a call comes in, the doors automatically lift, the lights go on and the siren sounds.

From this moment the fire fighters have 60 seconds to get dressed in their gear and be on the truck.

Acting Third Officer Gerard Ryan said getting on the truck within 60 seconds is very important. 

“It is one of our Key Performance Indicators (KPI). It is recorded and gives an indication of how fast we are responding to calls.

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.
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.

“The print out comes and after that, we are making our decisions,” Third Officer Ryan said.

“Myself, Irene and Duty Officer Robert O’Brien look at what do we send, how do we deal with this.

“The call will send a predetermined set of two pumps for example but we might look at it and say, well we know we need certain things like a water tanker for water supply if the area is bad or a platform if it is high rise.” 

“Robert, the duty officer, then stays behind giving out tasks and in constant contact with us and the Gardaí, liaising, coordinating and organising logistics.” 

Station Officer Wallace said that you can never tell how many calls you are going to get in a shift.

“We got 12 calls on a night shift last week and just four on a day shift. You can never tell how many there are going to be.

The station caters for a number of appliances including four fire engines, one hydraulic platform, One emergency tender, One control unit, a water tanker, an incident support unit, a hazardous materials unit and two rapid response units.

Station officer Wallace explained that the primary units are parked in the front bays in order to be able to respond quickly and be first at the scene while the specialist units are parked in secondary bays, behind.

The Fire Station which houses a number of important functional rooms including drill tower, training yard, gym, maintenance workshops and breathing apparatus room also caters for the Local Coordination Centre.

The Local Coordination Centre is used to deal with big incidents, such as flooding and snow.

“Anything that drives the community beyond its capabilities and resilience to manage, we open up the Coordination Centre,” Third Officer Ryan said.

“We look out for critical infrastructures such as ESB power stations or hospital flooding such as at the Mercy or the Bons.”

'14 rescues and a fatality: The worst incident I ever attended'

Senior firefighter Warren Forbes is 30 years in the force and has seen many devastating things over his time on duty.

Warren said the most serious incident he ever attended to was about 20 years ago, during the Cork Film Festival.

“It was on Drawbridge street, a three-storey house went up in flames. There were 14 rescues and a lady died.” 

Warren said the people had won an award at the festival and they were celebrating.

“In terms of the rescue, it was a very very difficult. “There were people jumping out of the windows and we couldn't put ladders up outside because of the electric cables that were coming across so all the rescues had to be done through the building and up the stairs, but the fire was on the ground floor so it was tough.” 

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.

Warren said the crew had their work cut out for them that night but they saved a lot of lives.

“It was a hard working job and there was a lot going on at the same time and we were almost overwhelmed with a number of casualties that we had.

The senior fire fighter said that the heat in the building was terrifying.

“That particular night I remember we were on the second floor and I was with a colleague and we were taking people out of the rooms but the heat coming up the stairs.

“We couldn’t get them out any other way you know and it is the only time I have ever heard a man screaming in fear as opposed to sobs. “This fella was very scared.” 

Warren explained that in these situation the tough tasks are taken on in the first ten to 15 minutes.

“What you generally find in fires is there is a lot of work, huge amount of work done in ten to fifteen minutes and that is when the pressure is on.

“After that period of time and people are rescued it is all controlling the fire and it is at that point that you can risk assess.” 

Coping 

Speaking about coping with a fatality, Warren said the crew are a support system for each other.

“I’m here 20 to 25 years now and you lose count of how many fatalities that you have seen. It's funny, different jobs affect you in different ways.

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

“Like I remember going to a normal house fire, an elderly couple in a cottage and the cottage burnt to the ground, they lost everything, no relatives, no insurance and that affected me more than some of the fatalities I had been on.

“You wonder what they are going to do now.

“They had lost everything and it is not just clothes, it is all the sentimental stuff that you spend a lifetime gathering.

“You eventually get used to it and we would always be looking out for each other, everybody deals with it differently."

Comradery 

The officers of the Cork City Fire Brigade said that a work place is a banterful place full of jokes.

“It is like second family, you leave your family at home and come to your family in here. We all know each other so well. We have a very close bond all of us, because we have been through so much altogether.

“We have been through the births together, the deaths together and the marriages. We guide each other through the hard times and praise each other in the good times.” 

Antisocial hours Working Christmas, Easter and everything in between is another aspect of the 24/7 schedule that is operated by Fire Service.

Third Officer Ryan said he has missed eight of his son’s 16 Christmas, but it is just an unfortunate part of the job.

“You know when you sign up that antisocial hours are involved. The lads are very good to help out if they can.

“Anyone not married or without kids usually works the shift to let those with families spend time at home.

Station Officer Wallace said before she had children she worked ten Christmases in a row to cover lads who had families.” 

“It makes a difference to those who have kids.”

Animal rescues

As well as these often delicate and dangerous situations the Brigade is still regularly called out to assist animals of all shapes and sizes.

“We often get a call about a cat stuck at a perilous height, a bird trapped in a chimney or a horse stuck in mud,” Third Officer Ryan said.

“All calls are treated with the same urgency and given the same response.

“We had a cat stuck up on a chimney last week. We knew by the time we put up the ladder the cat would run, but we couldn’t tell that to the person who saw the cat up on the chimney for three days.”

Jonathan Finn and Laurence Ging, Members of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, during Friday Checks on the RTA Cutting Equipment. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Jonathan Finn and Laurence Ging, Members of Cork City Fire Brigade Blue Watch, during Friday Checks on the RTA Cutting Equipment. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

In this particular instance, Third Officer Ryan said the cat did run across the roof and down as soon as the ladder was put up.

“If the cat can get up, it can get down. People don’t understand that. Some brigades use the hose nowadays. They just spray the water near the cat. Eventually, the cat gets tired of getting wet and moves on.” 

Horses stuck in mud is another problem that the Fire Service get called to deal with from time to time.

“We have specialist equipment to remove animals that are stuck in muck. Actually, we won a humanitarian award, three years back for rescuing a horse from mud.

“It took a number of hours to get the horse out, but we got it out and it survived.” 

One of the things that the Fire Brigade need to consider when taking calls such as this resources and manpower.

“Rescuing a horse ties up a lot of manpower, we have to balance it. We can only a certain amount of things.” 

Despite the need to ration their responses, the Cork City Fire Brigade have made a number of animal rescues over the years including resuscitating birds, cats and dogs and now the brigade have made the decision to carry pet oxygen masks in their appliances.

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