Cork city's first female firefighter: It’s an honour to serve people of Cork

The first female firefighter at Cork City Fire Brigade still has the same passion for the job as she did when she started 27 years ago, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Cork city's first female firefighter: It’s an honour to serve people of Cork

Irene Wallace (Station officer, Ballyvolane). Picture: Clare Keogh

“I COULDN’T imagine doing any other job. It is still magical after all these years.”

So says Irene Wallace, the first female firefighter to join Cork City Fire Brigade 27 years ago.

She had wanted to be a fire officer ever since she was a child.

“Like lots of the people in my family, I was a member of St John’s Ambulance when I was younger,” says Irene.

She was blessed with the genes to protect and defend.

“My mother, Patricia Wallace, 82, is the longest serving member of St John’s Ambulance Service in Ireland,” says Irene proudly.

She followed in her mother’s footsteps.

“Learning First Aid and other essential skills paved the way for my future career. Going on to join the Civil Defence was a stepping stone for me, showing me the diversity and a range of service within the Fire Service. Cork City Fire Brigade is very team orientated. We are like a big happy family who are always there for each other.”

Irene, part of a brave crew of firefighters, is always there to protect, prevent and respond.

“We have bad days unfortunately,” says Irene.

“That’s part of the job. But we have each other to lean on. When we climb into the fire engine responding to a call, we know that we are only as good as the sum of our parts.”

Irene was always just like one of the lads.

“If you want to serve your community and want to do a job that is exhilarating and rewarding, then this is the job for you.”

She found her footing in the fire service from day one.

“I loved being part of a team and forging friendships since I was young. Sport was another passion of mine,” says Irene.

“I always enjoyed playing team sports and I played soccer with Cobh Ramblers.”

Irene Wallace (Station officer, Ballyvolane). Picture: Clare Keogh
Irene Wallace (Station officer, Ballyvolane). Picture: Clare Keogh

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

“My girls are very sporty,” says Irene. “They both play camogie and football.”

Irene was always very physically fit.

“When I was training for the fire service, one of the tasks you had to do was carry your own body weight over your shoulder up a 13.5 metre ladder. They were called ‘live carries’. And you had to be able to run 100 metres.”

Irene measured up for the job.

“I was always an outdoorsy person.”

She had all the right qualities to join up. The desire to help others, the ability to evaluate a situation quickly, and the courage necessary for the wide-ranging role that can be a risky business, added up to the sum of many qualities to become a firefighter.

“I had attitude,” says Irene. “I was enthusiastic and focused. I wanted to do my best.”

She wasn’t a nine to fiver.

“I was not the office type,” says Irene laughing.

“Nine to five didn’t appeal to me. Joining the army or the Garda always appealed to me. I ended up joining the fire brigade!”

She paced herself.

“I took the training stages in blocks, concentrating on every section.”

The class of ’95 that passed out formed strong bonds.

“We all got on very well together within the fire service,” says Irene. “We all helped each other. I was stationed first at Anglesea Street.”

Her parents must have been very proud of their daughter wearing her firefighter’s uniform?

“Mum was really proud of me,” says Irene.

“Sadly my Dad died suddenly on Christmas Day when I was 17.”

No doubt her Dad would be proud as she got promotion climbing up the ranks.

“I am Station Manager now at Ballyvolane,” says Irene. 

“I manage a crew of six in the Northside of Cork. We respond to all calls; rubbish on fire, chimney fires, car accidents, river rescues, chemical fires, carbon monoxide combustion incidents; it can be very busy.”

It can be hairy at times too.

“Yes, there have been hairy incidents over the years,” says Irene.

“But because of our training, we can read all situations well and we work together. We are each other’s set of eyes. Nobody is ever on their own. Someone is always beside you or inside a burning building with you.”

It must be a great feeling to save a life?

“To help save a life is a wonderful feeling for us and for the family,” says Irene.

“Achieving a good outcome going out on a call is the goal. You can say, I’ve made a difference to lives today and to loved ones’ lives. It is a great achievement and it is a great honour to serve the people of Cork.”

The responsible job involving life and death doesn’t come easy.

“We train continually to maintain high standards,” says Irene. “We are up-skilling 100%.”

Being the difference, serving the people of Cork, must mean living a disciplined lifestyle?

“I’m a good girl,” she says, smiling.

Irene’s a Liverpool fan.

“I love sport and I love going to soccer matches. We follow Muster Rugby too. And we travelled long and far often to the Heineken Cup.

“In the current climate, we all miss going to matches. I like being in the thick of the action.”

This action woman is doing the job of her dreams. She wears her badge with pride.

“The uniform is empowering,” says Irene.

“You are representing Cork City Fire Brigade and the people of Cork trust you. They put their lives in your trust. By being there for them, we are doing our job.”

Irene leaves no stone unturned.

“Education is key in fire prevention,” she says. “An important role of the fire service is educating the public on fire safety. Pre-Covid we visited schools and interacted with the community, giving fire prevention advice.”

Irene feels right at home being a valued member of the fire service.

“Being the only girl almost 27 years ago, I never felt any different,” she says.

“I was always seen as part of the team.

“I had to reach and maintain the high standards, the same as everyone else, and do the same shifts!”

That’s a tall order.

“Yes, it involves 365 days and 365 nights a year, including Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. In 2020, my colleagues and I spent New Year’s Day together. We have good memories.”

The firefighters are close.

“We are a very tight-knit group. We often slag each other and have the banter,” says Irene.

“We have sad days and we have mad days.”

The days always have one thing in common though.

“Every day, we have each other’s back.” Irene’s enthusiasm for her job has never waned over the years.

“The adrenaline still flows,” she says.

“Every day is like the first day on the job, and I say wow, 27 years later I’m at the top of my game and thankfully, I have a fantastic career.”

WINTER FIRE SAFETY ADVICE

“Make sure your fire alarms have batteries in them and they are working” says Irene.

“Show the children in the home how to dial 999 in an emergency. Make sure they know the eircode.

“In our house, we have a bedtime routine, ensuring all the electrical appliances are switched off, all interior doors are closed, and all exits are clear, the front door and the back door, in case we need to escape.

“Before lighting fires or stoves, make sure your chimney is cleaned,” says Irene.

“If you have gas appliances, install a carbon monoxide alarm.”

A high standard of safety in the home is essential to prevent fire.

“Having a bedtime routine is a good idea,” says Irene.

“You can take it in turns. That is what we do at home.”

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