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Marathon effort

Swords FF/P Paul McGurrell has added the three RAWULTRA ultramarathons to his list of achievements.

If you’re searching for a figure to inspire a new fitness regime, Paul McGurrell is your man. The last time we spoke was in the summer of 2014, after he had completed the gruelling Marathon des Sable (MdS) – a 254km ultramarathon in the inhospitable environs of the Sahara desert.

Three years later, Paul shows no sign of easing the pace. This time he’s finished the series of three RAWULTRA ultramarathons across Ireland – Varty Lakes 100, Western Way 100 and Wicklow Way 100 – in a calendar year, the first person to complete the grand slam. These are by no means simple events – apart from the fact that each covers 100 miles, the terrain is usually difficult, and as the races begin during the cooler night-time hours, you can easily lose your bearings.

“I was the only one to complete all three. You have a combination of people getting injured, they just couldn’t physically complete [the races], or they have other commitments. It took up the year to a certain extent – you’re just recovering from one and you’re getting ready for the next,” Paul explains. “The first one in Vartry was in April, then the Western Way was July, and the final one – the Wicklow Way – was in December. It was a fair commitment from a training point of view.”

Marathon

Ultramarathons are nothing new for Paul, and so his training regime for the three Irish races was no different than other similar events. Fitness is obviously important, keeping the body fit and strong, and Paul begins winding down the running two weeks before a race, trying to regain weight that will be lost on the day. But a lot of the preparation is psychological – you need to be in the right mindset to get through a tough 100-mile race.

“You’re training your body for so much, but after a certain amount of time in these races your body just reaches [a point], you’re sore. It’s just where your head is at. You just have to suck it up and keep going, battling the fatigue and tiredness and lack of sleep,” Paul says. “The stomach becomes a big issue as well – it’s doubtless that you’ll be vomiting at some stage. You need to keep getting food going in, that’s key. If you don’t keep eating, you’re not going to make it and, as you can imagine, you end up getting sick after a while. It’s about keeping your mind in a good place, staying focused, and keeping the food going in as best as you can.”

So how do the Irish ultramarathons compare to the endurance race in the Sahara? The Marathon des Sable, as Paul explains, is a different beast. The heat and terrain are the key aspects in the MdS, but hydration may be the most important facet. Fail to properly rehydrate or keep your salt levels up and your race will be over before you know it.

Marathon

Race director Don Hannon presenting Paul with the grand slam champion trophy

“In terms of the distance, the 100-milers are tougher,” says Paul. “Psychologically, you have to push through the fatigue. Your mind starts playing tricks on you, it’s a lot more draining. There’s a lot more taken out of you doing the 100s, especially through the mountains. You’re doing a lot of climbing, you’re trying to concentrate on your navigation, you’re running through the night. And obviously the Irish weather is not always nice to us.” Still, when the weather conditions are just right, you’re cocooned in a bubble surrounded by some truly spectacular surroundings. Paul describes the Western Way 100 as “spectacular”, recalling running through the mountains at

Still, when the weather conditions are just right, you’re cocooned in a bubble surrounded by some truly spectacular surroundings. Paul describes the Western Way 100 as “spectacular”, recalling running through the mountains at 4am with a clear sky and a blanket of stars overhead. “From an aesthetic point of view, it was fantastic,” he explains.

Pushing limits

As a sporting endeavour, Paul explains that although the time commitment is considerable, ultramarathons are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland – a few of his colleagues in Swords are among those who have since taken up the challenge. Increasing numbers are also taking part in the annual Dublin City Marathon – last year’s event was the first year an organised group from DFB took part in the race. Paul is no stranger to the Dublin Marathon, and ran it twice in the one day before taking part in the Marathon des Sable. I ask Paul about his motivation – what keeps him inspired to continually push his body and mind to the limits? He considers the answer for a moment.

“It’s just to push yourself. It’s about when your body is completely exhausted and you’re absolutely shattered, and every bit of you just wants to sit down and stop and you just don’t – if you push through that, it’s amazing what you can feel like after it,” he explains. “It’s amazing what you can do with your body if you just have a good attitude towards it and you keep pushing on. It’s the challenges, and it’s [also] the people you meet. There are some great characters who do these races, because they’re all a bit nuts. The bottom line is I love running. It’s my hobby, it’s like my medicine. I’ve got a lot of friends into it, and it’s a nice social thing.”

Retired members: Noel Hayden

Conor Forrest caught up with retired District Officer Noel Hayden, who spent the best part of his career fighting fires on Dublin’s southside.

In the days when Dún Laoghaire fire station was a standalone unit, yet to become integrated with Dublin Fire Brigade, funds and finances were not so readily available. The process of officially mending or replacing something could be quite bureaucratic, and so it was often easier for a member of the crew to get out their toolbox and mend the broken lock or door. “There was no money for anything, and there was no gear – I had better tools in my car,” recalls retired District Officer Noel Hayden, who spent more than three decades fighting fires in Dún Laoghaire. A Crumlin man born and bred, Noel initially envisaged a life spent working in the trades. Beginning as an apprentice carpenter and joiner in Kennedy’s Bakery, he picked up plumbing, electrical and various other skills in the years that followed, including a stint as a carpenter with the now defunct Modern Display Artists. In fact, the house he and his wife Deirdre (along with their five children) have lived in since around 1983 was built by Noel, his brother-in-law Dennis and colleagues in the brigade at the time.

Though Dennis was a firefighter, the thought of joining the fire brigade had never crossed Noel’s mind. He was working on a job in Kilbarrack Shopping Centre in 1972 when Dennis suggested he join the brigade, and Noel agreed to look into it. A week or two later an advertisement for Dún Laoghaire firefighters appeared in the paper, and Noel’s wife Deirdre duly went to the town hall to collect an application. As they had none printed she was directed to the fire station, where they had none either, though the second officer, Willie Kennedy, accompanied her back to the town hall to duplicate the form. By the time Dublin Fire Brigade launched its own recruitment drive several weeks later, Noel was a firefighter in Dún Laoghaire. 

“It was handy enough until I got the pay!” he recalls of those early weeks with a laugh. Prior to joining the brigade, Noel was earning £35 a week with a builder in the city; the fire brigade’s starting salary was substantially less at £20 a week. Couple that with the fact that he had bought a house on the northside and was commuting down, and circumstances were a little strained.

“It was a bit of a struggle when I went into the fire brigade at first,” he tells me. “Then when the petrol crisis came that really knocked the socks off me. The train wasn’t always a good idea, and we didn’t always have the bridges we have now. If you were coming from the northside you had to go around Butt Bridge and right back down the quays on the far side to get to Dún Laoghaire. It was a long, slow trip.” Noel’s first chief in Dún Laoghaire was Kerryman Michael Murphy, who was cautious about needless spending, but had a sense of humour. “One time the chief officer said ‘You’ll have to act station officer tonight’. I said ‘I never did it at night-time before’. Says he, ‘There’s no difference, it’s just dark’!”

Noel quickly became involved with the social side of life in the brigade, joining the Sports and Social Club and spending 20 years on the committee. During that time they formed a boat club and, with Paddy Lee, a benevolent fund. In 1974 Dún Laoghaire hosted one of the biggest annual dinner dances in its history, with around 340 people attending from brigades around the country. “We improved a lot of things – we reorganised the television room in the station and I made seating for it. We got another recreation room that also had bar seating – one of the boys knew somebody who was closing a bar down,” says Noel.

Noel was one of the
firefighters stationed in Dún Laoghaire when the new station was opened in 1991

Improving conditions

Given his background, and the lack of funding available, Noel would do maintenance work around the station, while lending the mechanics a helping hand from time to time. It was during this time that he became involved with the union, and a committee began to meet with the Corporation manager once a month to voice complaints or request funds. A potato peeler was an early addition, then a dishwasher. A washing machine for PPE was also acquired after some negotiation, and the issue of lighting within the station was a common complaint. “Lights used to be switched off at 11pm in the fire station – it was like being in a reformatory!” he explains with a laugh. “We got extra lights fitted in toilets etc., and generally improved the conditions.”

The funding situation improved under the brigade’s new chief, Tom McDonald, a veteran of DFB. A greater emphasis was placed on training and equipment; the station’s firefighters began with a breathing apparatus course and new appliances were purchased. Sub Officer Christopher Cummins was dispatched around the country, visiting each fire station to see what they had, and made a list of requirements. The result was an impressive emergency tender featuring some of the latest innovations, including radios for communicating with marine rescue, housed in a small onboard control room.

“We did our BA course in the OBI [where his grandfather attended school almost 90 years previous], and other courses too. We did our own pump training in Dún Laoghaire – myself and Aidan Carroll ran that,” Noel explains. Exercises, too, became a regular occurrence, and the crew at Dún Laoghaire took part in one of the earliest Sealink joint rescue exercises in the Irish Sea, conducted alongside Holyhead Fire Brigade, the RAF and the Irish Air Corps. “We continued to progress,” Noel adds. “It was a smaller brigade so it was easier to do, you could train everyone in a couple of weeks.

Despite this increased focus on training and equipment, Dún Laoghaire’s ambulance service ran into difficulties in the late seventies/early eighties. Rewind just a couple of years and there were three Dún Laoghaire fire brigade ambulances operating in the district – two regular ambulances and a fever ambulance. However, staffing issues began to arise and Noel explains how – rather than manning the ambulance for a full shift as happens today – personnel would switch between the fire tender and ambulance throughout the course of a shift. 

“You could come back in, get off the fire tender, wash yourself very quick and get into your dress uniform, get onto the ambulance and be out on a call five minutes later,” he says. The ambulance service finally departed in 1982, falling under the remit of Colmcille’s Hospital in nearby Loughlinstown. Though Dún Laoghaire moved to their present station in 1992, and amalgamated with Dublin Fire Brigade in 1994, the station remains the only one in Dublin without an ambulance today. Still, the crew was by no means underworked. The chimney van was one of the busiest appliances in a time when people were still burning the old coal. “When I was there first you would do 15 chimney fires a night. The best thing Mary Harney ever did for the country was get Dublin smoke free [in 1990]. It cut down on the chimney fires, as did the natural gas and gas-fired heating,” Noel explains.

Noel at his home

Memories

Noel’s time in Dún Laoghaire lasted 30 years, but eventually he moved on. Having been promoted to sub officer in 1984 (acting sub officer since 1979), and station officer in 1994, he joined Donnybrook fire station in 2003. Three years later he was posted to Phibsborough as the district officer and saw out his remaining years on the northside, eventually retiring in 2009. Throughout that time he has met some great characters (some of whom dubbed him ‘Luigi’ on seeing his jet black hair). They’re the type of people you remember years after you’ve left the job, the type of people who take you under their wing, who make you laugh and learn, and most of all who make the job what it is.

“I’ve worked with some great characters, some very skillful and smart people. I had a station officer, Tim Mahony, he was one of the first station officers I worked for. Myself, Aidan Carroll and a few others, we used to be called Tim’s lads. We had some great times working with Tim. He used to say ‘There’s some equal lads and others more equal!” Noel recalls. There are memorable incidents too – good and bad. Noel remembers a call to attend to a 12-year-old girl who wasn’t breathing. Though they quickly reached the scene she was beyond help, and all they could do was bring her to hospital. “I think that’s the one that sticks in my mind the most,” he explains.

But lives have also been saved. One day Noel was teaching another firefighter how to drive the appliance when they were flagged down – a fire was burning outside a nearby shed with two children trapped inside. Leaving his colleague to operate the pumps and raise the alarm in the station across the road, Noel managed to locate and rescue a young boy and his friend. Three years later, the crew were walking out of the station’s kitchen, and could smell something burning. A house was on fire around the corner and they quickly turned out, Noel circling around the back while several others came through the front door. Spotting a crack in a pane of glass from which smoke was emanating, Noel quickly removed the glass and climbed inside, passing two kids out to safety. With colleagues in BA sets approaching and the smoke getting to him, Noel retreated to the back yard having warned that somebody else was trapped in the house. Then he heard a noise, and he was handed a baby.

“It was the same family as the young lad in the shed – that was the four of them I rescued from fires!” he explains. “I must say, in the 37, 38 years there I enjoyed most of it. I might have had about three bad days, and two of them I can’t remember.” Noel has retired from DFB, but life after is by no means quiet. “The things I miss most are the days off!” he laughs. Still quite handy with a toolbox, Noel is the go-to man in the family and his neighbourhood when something goes wrong. He’s also started a family tradition – his son Rod has been in the brigade since 2004, stationed in Dolphin’s Barn, and thoroughly enjoys the hectic life of a firefighter. “He likes being busy,” says Noel. “He’s happy in his work.

High calibre – DFB’s new emergency service controllers

Dublin Fire Brigade has welcomed the latest batch of emergency service controllers, who graduated from the O’Brien Institute last December.

Last December, a fresh batch of emergency service controllers finished their ten weeks of training in the O’Brien Institute, graduating in front of senior officers, training instructors, friends and family. The day began with the recruits undertaking their final exams, followed by a gathering in the chapel – a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) information session where CISM team member Adrian O’Grady spoke to the new controllers and their families, providing an outline of what CISM is and what the team provides – a response to any call within 20 minutes from a team of volunteers across the job.

O’Grady also outlined the role of the controller, the need to get a clear picture of the scene, the ability to calm callers down and empower them to help others, to mobilise resources within seconds, and liaise with crews on scene. “Call takers save seconds, seconds save lives,” he noted.

In addition, he touched on the need for resilience and their ability to bounce back – some of the calls received by emergency service controllers can take their toll, and care and support from their loved ones at home is very important to cope with trauma.

During their training, the recruits were exposed to increasingly severe calls, and are being mentored by experienced colleagues in their early days in the job. The CISM team has recently introduced a support whereby emergency service controllers can press a button and speak to a member of the CISM team. But family support is paramount to reducing the impact of the highly stressful workplace, and is important for maintaining a good work/life balance.

“CISM is not an illness or a disease. From next week, your nearest and dearest will be exposed to very stressful and complicated situations. We have trained them for it insofar as we can. However, stress can manifest itself in different ways,” explained Brigade Training Officer Gerry Stanley.

Passing out

The CISM talk was followed by a drill at the front of the chapel, an inspection of the graduating controllers by Brigade Training Officer Gerry Stanley and Assistant Chief Fire Officer Dennis Keeley, ending with an official presentation of certificates inside the chapel. A popular topic was the standard of training, the quality of the recruits, and how this is just the first step in their new careers.

“It was difficult to start with, it took a bit of getting used to, coming from the private sector, not being used to being so disciplined. But after the first week or so I was settled in. It was all very interesting, very rewarding too,” said David Doran, one of the new emergency service controllers who hopes to one day undertake the firefighter and paramedic training. “Like most young people, I’ve always admired the fire service, I’ve always wanted to be a part of it. I’ve been in the Civil Defence, and I applied for the last number of recruitment opportunities. Lucky enough, this time I got in!”

 

Emergency service controllers

Speaking at the ceremony, ACFO Keeley was full of praise for the graduating recruits.

“The role that you take on is an extremely important one – you are the face of Dublin Fire Brigade when a person makes a call for help, whether it’s for the fire service, ambulance or rescue,” he said. “It can be at times a very stressful job, but I would hope that the training you have been equipped with, your colleagues, the further training that you will undergo, and the family ethos in the brigade will get you through the types of incidents that you will face. I wish this class the absolute best for their future careers. For us, the future looks good when we have people of your calibre coming into the job.”

Station profile: C watch No 5

We caught up with the crew of C watch No 5, learning more about the scope of their work on the northside, and what makes the job so special.

Finglas fire station was somewhat quiet when I arrived on a sunny morning last April. The ambulance was out on a call, the fourth or fifth in just two hours, while the appliance was taking a break in-between responses. C watch was on duty that morning, helmed by Station Officer Derek McGuinness who is on his second stint in Finglas. Starting out as a retained firefighter in Swords, he moved to a full-time role in 1990 and spent a year in Phibsborough followed by three years in HQ. From there he moved to North Strand until his promotion to sub officer on D watch HQ. Following a further promotion to station officer, he spent three years in Finglas on C watch, before moving to Donnybrook and then to the Equipment Maintenance Department. However, No 5 beckoned once more, and he’s been overseeing C watch here once again for the past year.

“I’m in my 27th year full-time. AFS before that, Civil Defence, a bit of work with the Red Cross. I’ve always had an interest. My father was a fire officer in Squibbs in Swords – it was in the blood,” he explains. “I’m back to the old crew now. I had a choice – I can really only work in two pump stations as I’m a senior station officer, but despite having one pump, Finglas is classified as a district station because we have the two retained stations and Swords. It’s a little busier here, but I’d rather be busier than not.”

Given the breadth of Finglas’ area of responsibility, it’s no surprise that it’s a busy station. No 5 covers to the borders of Phibsborough’s area in Glasnevin, and from there right up to the border with Louth. They also respond when required to domestic incidents or RTCs alongside crews from Swords, and Skerries and Balbriggan retained fire stations. Bristol-Myers Squibb in Swords presents a potential hazmat challenge, which the large electrical station on the North Road, where large amounts of fuel are stored, adds to the list of potential large-scale incidents. Training obviously plays a key role, with regular training exercises arranged to keep the crew up-to-date in the event of an incident.

“The main one, of course, is the Airport, that’s our main priority. We would liaise very closely with the officers in the Airport – if they have a manning shortage on a night shift they would inform us that they don’t have a domestic appliance available. In that situation we would increase our turnout response to three pumps instead of two for any alarm,” S/O McGuinness explains.

The appliance at No 5

Emergency medicine

The paramedic aspect of the job is something that has always interested S/O McGuinness. He was one of six pioneers of DFB’s advanced paramedic programme, travelling to the US in 1991 to complete a 12-month paramedic course. The six took part in an internship with New York Fire Department and undertook a number of clinical placements, in partnership with Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. What they learned over the course of those 12 months was hugely significant for the development of DFB’s paramedic capabilities, having been exposed to a wide variety of situations they would never have encountered back home. On his return, S/O McGuinness was seconded to the OBI Training Institute for several months at a time to train other paramedics, a far cry from the basic first aid course he completed as a recruit in St. Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park.

Today, DFB’s dual role firefighter/ paramedic system is serving the city well – with stations strategically located north and south of the Liffey calls are responded to with little or no delay. As with most stations around Dublin, medical cases far outweigh calls to attend fires, and the crew on C watch have had a number of saves in the area over the past few months, including several successful resuscitations following cardiac arrest. S/O McGuinness notes the positives of being able to dispatch a fire tender to the scene of a medical incident with trained paramedics on board. “It’s an excellent resource to have pulling up at your door, with five or six paramedics jumping out,” he says. “Some of the APs are riding out on the tenders as well.” One of those paramedics is Mick Ennis, who joined the brigade in 2001 and has been stationed in Finglas since April 2002. “It’s a great job, a great career, it’s a great thing to be a part of,” he says.

As you might imagine he’s seen quite a few changes in the intervening years – officers and recruits coming and going, changes in the way they tackle incidents and how they can treat the patients they encounter. For example, in his early days Mick would often respond to a local man with diabetes who would go into a diabetic seizure from time to time due to low blood sugar. Initially, his sister would keep Lucozade tablets or jam on hand for the paramedics to ‘administer’, but as time passed and DFB’s medical resources expanded, the ambulance’s supplies included glucose, glucagon injections and much more besides.

“The level of professionalism is so vast now. For people with breathing problems… when I started there was oxygen and that was it. Now we can give salbutamol, ipratropium bromide. And you can physically see the people in front of you change, from where they couldn’t breathe and they’re frightened to where they’re back talking to you and thanking you. There’s a huge change in the level that we operate at.” Mick also pinpoints geographical changes within Finglas’ area of responsibility, including the changed landscape of Ballymun and the advent of the Port Tunnel. “When I started there was no tunnel,” he explains. “That doesn’t affect us hugely because it’s very safe and well organised so we wouldn’t be down there every hand’s turn.” I ask Mick about any cases that stand out in his mind, and he smiles. “I remember one case that stands out,” he says.

That particular case took place in the vicinity of the station; a call came in advising that a stabbing had taken place. Though another ambulance had been dispatched, Mick and his partner John O’Riordan reached the patient first. The individual was lying on the ground, miraculously still alive, a knife protruding from their chest. Though the crew initially secured the patient in the ambulance, the patient managed to remove the knife and became quite aggressive. In the end, garda reinforcements were called, the patient was restrained on the ambulance stretcher, and was taken to hospital. The impact and experience of senior personnel like this is invaluable, particularly for those who are new to the job, like recruit Dave Brennan, currently completing his paramedic training. Three years ago F/F Gary Wilson was in that position, having joined the brigade internally from Dublin City Council, starting out in Finglas in 2009.

“Every call is different, when the bells go off you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what it is. Starting off it’s a new language for you, it’s completely different,” he explains. “You do it in training, but when you get hands on with the practical side of the job it’s a whole different ballgame. You need the senior lads to take you under their wing – they teach you a lot. We have a recruit here at the moment, so we’re helping him. We all started off the same way.”

District Officer Joe Keena

Aid in Africa

One thing I’ve noticed from each of the stations I’ve visited is that the crew are often involved in charitable endeavours, raising funds or awareness for a wide variety of worthy causes. Finglas is no different – S/O McGuinness has travelled to Zinder, a city in Niger, to provide his experience and expertise to the city’s fledgling fire department. Working with Fire and Ambulance Development in Africa (FADA), he was one of six people who travelled to the West African country two years ago, bringing with them several fire tenders and old cutting equipment that had been donated by brigades around the country. The team spent two weeks in Niger; a five-day drive through the Sahara desert, followed by a training programme to teach Zinder’s firefighters how to operate their newfound equipment. It’s an expensive process – the biggest expense is shipping, costing roughly d5,000 per appliance to ship from Ireland to Africa.

“That’s an ongoing project. Kildare Fire Brigade got in touch with me when I was in Logistics, and donated two fire appliances. There’s a crew that refurbishes appliances in their spare time, and any old equipment that brigades around the country can donate will be gladly taken,” says S/O McGuinness, who hopes to make a collection of the old DFB uniforms once the new versions enter service this year. “A couple of medical supplies went out this year, but we’ll probably go out teaching again next year. They’re basically starting from scratch.”

Although outfitting the city’s fire service with modern technology is the main goal, there have been some unexpected but positive side effects. Some of the fire tenders are also being used to ferry water from wells to villages, which allows young girls to receive an education – usually they’re kept at home to carry water throughout the day, but now their time is freed up to continue their studies.

Getting involved in causes like these, alongside work that is different each and every day, makes for a career that is never dull, one in which you can give back to not just your local community, but those further afield. “I started here when I was 30. I had seen a bit of life, I had worked in different places, but this is like no other,” says Mick Ennis. “My son is 21 and has just got on the panel to come in. We’re really proud because I think it’s a fine, honourable job to be in. There’s stuff that happens along the way that knocks you, but generally it’s the best job in the world.”

Renovation complete

The last time I was in No 5, their renovation programme was almost complete, with a few bits to be finished here and then. Two-and-a-half years later they’re well settled into their new digs, and are very much enjoying the fruits of that labour, including 24/7 hot water and a generator that kicks in when the main power grid fails.

“The station is fantastic, the facilities that we have here now – compared to what we had, compared to every other station in the job – are second to none,” says Simon Finglas, who is currently studying to become an advanced paramedic. “It definitely makes a difference when you’re coming into work in a nice working environment.”

Transforming lives: Operation Transformation

RTÉ’s Operation Transformation celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, setting another five leaders on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Conor Forrest caught up with S/O Dave Connolly to learn more about Dublin Fire Brigade’s involvement in the show.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, RTÉ’s Operation Transformation returned to our screens last January and February, with five new leaders put through their paces through an intensive eight-week programme in a bid to radically change their exercise and eating habits. For the third year running, Dublin Fire Brigade partnered with the show to set the leaders a series of physical and psychological challenges, this time with two firefighters in the form of S/O Dave Connolly and FF/P Stephen Howard, pushing them to their limits each week.

For Dublin Fire Brigade, the show represents an opportunity to showcase the depth of experience within the brigade, alongside the types of incidents they regularly respond to. The bar was set high (literally and figuratively) at the end of the first week: the leaders assembled at La Touche House in Dublin’s docklands, an imposing 100-foot building. Here they had to undertake a psychological challenge, climbing the 100-foot turntable ladder to the roof, followed by a leap of faith – stepping into thin air while suspended in a harness. Other challenges tested the leaders’ willpower and encouraged them to work as a team – ziplining from Tower A to Tower B in the OBI, or dealing with the fallout from a simulated traffic collision while simultaneously fighting a number of fires.

“We were trying to highlight different aspects of what DFB does – we included road traffic collisions, highline rescue work and swiftwater rescue on the beaches,” explains S/O Connolly. At one point the pressure proved too much for Seán Daly, a leader in his twenties, who clashed with S/O Connolly on the drill yard and was (temporarily) given his marching orders. “The exercises were designed to put them under pressure. The logic was, when they left us, the next time they’re put under pressure they can use their [newly developed] coping mechanisms,” he added.

However, S/O Connolly admired the enthusiasm and effort displayed by Seán and the other leaders, who were being pushed to their limits and beyond. “Seán – you could never doubt his effort. Chris, an amputee, he moved better than some of the other leaders, and his attitude and mindset was right,” he says.

Operation Transformation

Dave Connolly and Stephen Howard. Images courtesy RTE.

Looking back

Devising, organising and implementing these challenges is a tough process, one that begins several months before the show begins. However, despite long days of planning and preparation, long hours to produce just a few minutes of TV time, S/O Connolly thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It’s been fantastic – I get to push boundaries. I’m very passionate about DFB, and to be able to highlight it on a national stage is brilliant. It’s all very challenging, but I love it,” he tells me. “This year I was working with Stephen Howard, a firefighter from D watch Kilbarrack. He’s a qualified physical therapist – that was great when we were warming up the leaders, making sure nobody got injured. He was an absolutely brilliant asset.”

Clearly their hard work was a success – a combination of a healthy eating plan and new-found willpower meant that the leaders collectively lost almost 10 stone during the two months. “By embracing a healthier way of life they have inspired thousands of people around Ireland to transform their lives. Already the leaders have lost a serious amount of weight, but more important is what they’ve gained – a love for exercise and a healthier relationship with food. It would be hard to find five more inspirational people to be the leaders for the tenth series of OT,” said proud host Kathryn Thomas.

The leaders also performed admirably in a final race in the OBI against a team of All-Star leaders from previous series. The head-to-head competition was a tough test featuring an amalgamation of the challenges this series – ziplining from a raised platform; loading from an equipment dump to a DFB jeep; pulling the jeep from one end of the training yard to another; and racing to unload a tender to extinguish a fire. Though the race was close, the current leaders won the day.

“This year’s five leaders were working together as a team for a period of weeks at this stage – they had gelled together and were working very well as a team,” S/O Connolly explains. “But the All-Stars, when you brought them together they were five individuals, and they just hadn’t got that time together to perform at the same level. And the proof was in the pudding.”

Retired members: Michael Dineen

Michael Dineen

Michael Dineen (left) and F/F Michael Healy (right) on the switch at Tara Street in the 1950s

Conor Forrest sat down with retired D/O Michael Dineen to discover more about life in the fire brigade more than 50 years ago.

In their comprehensive book on the history of Dublin Fire Brigade, Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead write of one of the worst attacks on the city of Dublin – something they refer to as the forgotten tragedy of the Troubles. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings took place on May 17th 1974, a series of co-ordinated explosions in both Dublin City and the centre of Monaghan town during rush hour. The first bomb was concealed inside a green Hillman Avenger on Parnell Street, and exploded at 5.30pm; the second went off at the same time on Talbot Street. The third exploded at 5.32pm on South Leinster Street, close to the railings of Trinity College. A fourth bomb went off around 6.58pm in Monaghan town centre. The streets of Dublin were busier as a result of a bus strike, but no warnings were given.

“The explosions were heard in both Tara Street and Buckingham Street fire stations so the men on duty hurried to the engine rooms. Soon the control room in headquarters was alive with calls and fire engines and ambulances were being dispatched to the scenes of the carnage,” the authors recount. The bombs killed 33 civilians (some count 34, as a full-term unborn child also lost its life), while around 300 people were injured. No-one has ever been charged for the deadliest attack of the Troubles.

“When the immediate shockwave of the ferocious blasts began to subside, the rescue crews arriving in the smokey darkness heard the first sounds and movements of the stunned victims. The scenes of carnage unfolded; there were wrecked cars, windowless buildings, debris-strewn streets, massive amounts of dust and floating paper. In the midst of all this mayhem were the cries of the maimed, the injured, the shocked and the traumatised. Due to a change of shift at 6pm crews were coming on duty to empty stations and those in Tara Street were dispatched in any vehicles available to assist at the dreadful sites. The emergency plan was immediately activated. All ambulances were routed to the terror-filled streets to be loaded with victims and rushed to the designated hospitals.”

Station photo, Tara Street, 1958. Michael is in the second row from the top, second on the left

Rescue operations were made difficult as a result of heavy traffic, and emergency vehicles had trouble getting through to the scene. Vehicles from DFB were aided by civilian cars, taxis, health board ambulances and a bus in a bid to remove the wounded and the dead from the scene, amid fears that further bombs would explode. “The working firemen had no time to wonder who was responsible as they searched the damaged buildings nearby for further casualties. Within four hours all those dead or requiring medical assistance had been removed to hospitals and the taped-off streets were deserted. Staff going off duty in the Dublin Fire Brigade were finally heading for home and trying to forget as much as possible the terrible trauma they had faced only hours before.”

One of these men was retired D/O Michael Dineen, he tells me, though understandably he doesn’t say much about what he witnessed on Dublin’s streets that day. “It was a sad day for the people that were killed,” he says. Attending such a grisly scene was difficult for all those who aided the sick and dying that day, as Michael notes. But, in the end, DFB’s firefighters had a job to do, and the mood didn’t change following the incident. “The fire brigade is the fire brigade,” Michael states sagely.

Michael was one of a number of firefighters present at another historic incident which took place in the capital in 1966. “I was there for the bombing in Sackville Place, when the pillar was bombed in 1966,” he explains. Built in 1808-1809, Nelson’s Pillar commemorated the famed British Navy officer, Horatio Nelson, and his victory at Trafalgar in November 1805. Despite criticism, it remained in place until March 8th 1966, when a bomb destroyed the upper structure of the pillar. The device had been planted by a number of former IRA volunteers, which some believe to have been in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Nobody was hurt, though a nearby taxi driver saw his car destroyed. Because it was too badly damaged, the Irish Army carried out a controlled demolition on the remainder of the pillar which, ironically, caused more damage on O’Connell Street than the original blast.

On duty at North Strand (front row, second from the right)

Humble beginnings

Michael is originally from a small farm in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, and travelled to Dublin 1951 to take up employment as a barman in Phil O’Reilly’s on Hawkins Street. As some DFB members frequented the pub at the time, Michael came to hear that the fire brigade was recruiting. It helped, of course, that a healthy and active lifestyle was something he was interested in. “The lads of the fire brigade used to drink in the pub, and they said to me they were taking recruits over there [and asked me] ‘would you be interested?’”

Michael was very interested, and so began a long and enjoyable career with DFB. Beginning in 1955, he first spent a month in training at the Tara Street fire station, learning techniques and conducting pump and hose drills. Having completed his training, his first posting outside of HQ was to Dorset Street, followed by spells in Buckingham Street and Rathmines fire stations – all since closed. He can’t, however, choose a favourite station. “They were all pretty good. There was good comradeship in all the stations,” he says with a smile.

Throughout the proceeding years, and as he moved around the various stations, Michael’s career continued to develop. “I got promoted after seven years’ service, so I was a Sub/Officer.” The next step took him to the post of Station Officer, spending five years in Dolphin’s Barn and before he retired, he had achieved the rank of D/O, serving the final 12 years of his career in North Strand.

Michael’s retirement party, 1987

Different times

Life in DFB back in the 1950s was undoubtedly very different. The fire brigade’s remit during this period was expanding – the Factories Act of 1955 meant that DFB was taking on extra work, required to inspect more than 250 city factory plans, deal with certificates, inspect public places including resort and lottery premises, and other areas of concern. Two years later, in 1957, the auxiliary fire service was re-established, and chief fire officers across the country, including in Dublin, were tasked with training this new force. A 54-hour week would be reduced to a 45-hour week in June 1974, and down to 42 hours in April 1975.

At the time when Michael started, however, firefighters would work for a day and a night, and would then be on leave for a further day and night. Not one to complain, all Michael says of those times is “we didn’t mind, really,” and agreed that having spent such time in the station, it became a second family, a home from home, something which hasn’t changed to this day. One of the worst incidents Michael recalls was a fire at the Regent Hotel on D’Olier Street. “There were a couple of people burned,” he says. “The fire more or less went up through the hotel itself.”

Gas, however, was the major challenge, he tells me. Throughout his time in the brigade, a number of gas-related incidents claimed a number of lives, and levelled buildings. Tom Geraghty’s book, for example, notes a number of gas explosions, including one which destroyed two houses on Finn Street, in 1970, with two others suffering damage. Two months later, another explosion injured five people after a shoe shop on Glasnevin Hill went up in flames. “We were down in a block of flats down in the docks one day, and there were two lads who got gassed – the lads had to go in and pull them out. They (gas incident precautions) were pretty good [for example] you couldn’t switch anything on or off, or open the window,” he says.

But it wasn’t all pressure and stressful situations. Michael recalls several trips abroad, of a social nature, visiting firefighters in other countries to share their experiences. “The firemen were very good. We visited Belfast and talked to firemen up there, and we went to Cork, and I went to England and talked to the firemen there, and I [also] went to America.” One of the places he visited in the US was Secaucus, a small town in Hudson County, New Jersey, a 30-minute drive from New York City. Instead of finding differences, whether in perspective or the way in which they operated, Michael found that those firefighters operated to the same standards as those back home. “They were more or less on the same level,” he recounts.

Michael Dineen

These days

Now settled in Santry with his wife Philomena, to whom he has been married for 54 years, Michael is enjoying his retirement, effective since 1987, though he hasn’t simply sat back and watched the years go by. Once out of the job, he went to work with children with special needs in St. Michael’s House for 12 years, something he’s had an interest in for a long time now, and a calling echoed by his daughter and granddaughter. In his own words, it was an opportunity to give something back, to help those “who weren’t as lucky as we were.”

Though he has moved on and is making the most of civilian life, and as a regular with the Retired Members Association, he still keeps in touch with other retired members, sharing stories and trips across the country and beyond, it’s clear that Michael has fond memories. “I have no regrets and I enjoyed my time,” he tells me. “I worked in six different stations, with some of the very best firefighters.”

CISM: Learning from the best

CISM

Adrian O’Grady, Dublin Fire Brigade’s critical incident stress management team coordinator, recently travelled to attend and take lessons from the 2017 International Critical Incident Stress Federation World Congress.

Over the years, effective critical incident stress management (CISM) has become increasingly prevalent among emergency services. A protocol devised to deal with traumatic events, it allows those involved to share their experiences and emotions, learn about stress and its management, and avail of further help if required.

Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) is one of a number of Irish emergency services that has a full-time CISM response team for personnel who need to talk about their experiences. New recruits are provided with several days’ worth of CISM training during their early days in the job, and similar training is provided to emergency service controllers. In addition, CISM training is provided when a member of DFB receives a promotion, before going out into the field. When required, the CISM team also organises one-to-one interventions post-incident, as well as group interventions two to three days later.

At the head of DFB’s CISM team is coordinator and Station Officer Adrian O’Grady, who recently travelled to Baltimore to take part in the International Critical Incident Stress Federation World Congress, May 1st – 6th on stress, trauma and coping mechanisms. The governing body that oversees the accreditation and standard of CISM training across the world, the Federation runs a world congress every two years, an opportunity to network, meet fellow professionals, and share ideas.

“It was a joy to be at, full of training lessons from around the world, of disasters, the aftermath of disasters, support needed in disaster scenarios, but also the small stage incidents that we encounter regularly,” says Adrian, who recently added certification as an Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner to his skillset, a psychotherapy that facilitates those affected by trauma to resume the normal processing of information. “There were some new ideas over there, some old ideas that have worked very well. It was a very open congress, it was about learning from the mistakes we’ve made, and pushing forward in new ways of working. An excellent experience.”

CISM

Adrian O’Grady (centre) with Dr Jeffrey Mitchell (left) and Dr George Everly (right), CISM’s founding fathers

Lessons learned

Thankfully Ireland hasn’t been exposed to a major emergency incident since the Stardust fire in 1981. However, this means that DFB’s CISM team only has experience in assisting in the aftermath of smaller scale incidents, and thus the chance to learn from those who have dealt with major emergency events was invaluable.

Among the incidents discussed throughout the week was the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida last year, in which 49 people were killed and 53 injured; the 2016 shootings in Dallas in which nine police officers lost their lives, the deadliest incident for US law enforcement officers since 9/11; the 2015 Baltimore riots following the death of a man in police custody; and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Outside the US, the case of Germanwings Flight 9525 was highlighted, in which a passenger flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf was deliberately crashed into the French Alps by the co-pilot, who had a history of depression. All 144 passengers and six crew members on board were killed. “To hear the experiences of people in the aftermath of those incidents was phenomenal,” Adrian explains. “A lot of people at that congress were the same kind of people, people who have worked on the ground at major incidents and understand what it’s like. It was great to mingle with them – they’re usually in the background.”

For Adrian, it was also a chance to meet the founding fathers of CISM. CISM training was first devised by Dr Jeffrey Mitchell, a former firefighter and paramedic who came to a realisation that there was a need for additional support and interventions in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. Dr Mitchell wrote a paper outlining his ideas in 1983, and from there the field of traumatology exploded into being, aided by the work of George Everly, the co-founder of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. “You’re seeing the people who wrote the entire system – they’re still there and they’re at the top of their game. George Everly is at the top of neuroscience and neuroplasticity. He’s more or less proven that CISM still works because neuroscience is now saying it does. Because we’re taking scans of the brains it’s telling us that we’re hitting the right areas with the work that we’re doing,” Adrian says.

The way forward

Having had the chance to mingle and learn from colleagues around the world, Adrian understandably came home bursting with ideas on how to improve DFB’s CISM unit. For example, a dog handler who worked tirelessly among crews on the site of the Twin Towers in 9/11 spoke about the effectiveness of using dogs in the aftermath of major emergencies, which could be incorporated within the work of DFB’s team in the future, particularly with members of the public. Adrian also noted the use of a mini pedalo by emergency dispatch personnel while on duty. “If you’re traumatised and the adrenaline is rushing through your body, you still have to take the call, there’s nowhere for it to go,” he tells me. “The pedalo enables you to release some of the adrenaline from your system, though I don’t know how that will go down!” One of the US fire departments has developed a comprehensive suicide prevention programme – DFB does quite a lot of suicide prevention training, but this particular programme was more hands-on and open in terms of discussing suicide and the risks among emergency service personnel. Adrian has presented these ideas to DFB management, who have provided fantastic support to the CISM team and to Adrian in travelling to Baltimore.

However, he also had the opportunity to share a unique concept created by DFB’s CISM team – the family CISM information nights in the OBI, which provide the family members of new recruits with information on what their loved ones could go through in the future, and the tools required to help them get through difficult times. “That seemed to have gone down very well over there, a lot of organisations don’t do the family nights,” he explains. “I’ve already been in touch with several fire departments over there who want to see what we do, how we do it, when we do it, and how we present that package to members of the public. We brought as much as we took, which was great.”

CISM

Crisis response dogs are helpful in getting
traumatised people, especially children, to
speak and process traumatic events

The plan now is for DFB’s CISM unit to progress further, to continue to incorporate international best practice, to learn from the mistakes and experiences of other services and to stand shoulder to shoulder with colleagues around the world. The team is a guiding member of CISM Network Ireland with T/O Brendan McNicholas as its current chair, and is in contact with the new European network as it begins to evolve. The research arm of the CISM team has also recently presented a paper at the European Association of Work and Organisational Psychology Congress held in Dublin in May.

“We’re prepared, and we’re a lot more prepared after this congress than we were before,” Adrian says. “It’s just a matter of disseminating all of this information to the team and across the job. There are areas for gentle improvement, but the quality of our team is up there with everyone else.”

As the CISM unit continues to grow and expand its horizons, the team members will play an ever-important role. Adrian notes that they’re looking for new team members as the current unit is at the end of a four-year cycle, one that’s in place to avoid secondary traumatic stress. “I can’t ask anything more of the team that has worked for the last four years – they’ve done their duty phenomenally,” he says. “They give up their time, their family and home time, and will drop everything in a heartbeat to be a support for their colleagues. It’s on the back of those people that the team is in such a good place.” 

OBI family nights

Adrian first got involved in CISM when he was six months in the job, stationed in Rathfarnham, following a traumatic incident. The team was formed in 1999 by his predecessor (the now deceased Sub Officer Mark Brannigan) and has gone from strength to strength over the years due to the work of Adrian, the Clinical Director Aidan Raynor, and the tireless team members, providing supports to DFB personnel and their families that include family information nights in the OBI. Family members can play a huge support role – strong bonds, open communication and honest discussion can prove pivotal, and they can recognise changes or stress escalation in their loved ones that others may not.

The most recent night was held at the beginning of March; alongside talks from Gerry Stanley, Paul Lambert and Dan Fynes, Adrian gave an account of what the family members of Recruit Class 1/2017 can expect in the years ahead, noting that new recruits are more likely to share stressful encounters at home than with their colleagues. “That’s why we’ve brought you here tonight, to prepare you for those offloads,” he told the gathered family members.

The next step: DFB’s new sub officers

Pictured are the 50 sub officers who graduated in May, along with the team of instructors led by D/O Robert Tierney

Among the latest graduates from the O’Brien Training Institute are 50 new sub officers, who have completed the junior officer course.

Dublin Fire Brigade’s training centre in Marino is a whirlwind of activity these days, as recruit classes undergo their introduction to the world of firefighting, serving personnel pass through for continuous professional development, and external organisations take part in courses like occupational first aid. Among those passing through the training institute earlier this year was a group of newly promoted sub officers, completing the junior officer course in advance of deployment in their new roles.

A total of 48 full-time and two retained sub officers took part in the intensive two-week course, following a rigorous and robust selection process. Covering a variety of knowledge and expertise required of a sub officer, the overarching theme is the structure and management plan of Dublin Fire Brigade, and the position of the sub officer in the chain of command.

“The areas we cover are methods of instruction – they have a paramount role within the organisation in the stations, delivering lectures, delivering and supervising training. So it’s important they have an understanding of the health and safety of firefighters and the ability to deliver training. We teach them how to do that,” explains course director D/O Rob Tierney. “It’s the biggest junior officer course ever done in Dublin Fire Brigade. Logistically it was quite demanding, but I had a great team around me, especially the officers that I had asked to be here on the course. But also the support staff in the OBI, considering that they also had 50 recruits training here. At some stages there were 200 people here during the day, but I’m pleased to say that it went very well. It’s great to see so many people progress through the ranks in one group. Historically you have smaller groups, perhaps of 20-30 people, but to see 50 new officers in a room is fantastic progress for Dublin Fire Brigade and Dublin City Council.”

Sub officers

The team of course instructors. FRONT (L-R): D/O W. Maher, D/O R. Tierney, D/O P Hendricken. BACK (L-R): S/O R. Currie, S/O S. Dillon, S/O P. Sherlock, S/O M/ Cooke

Coursework

A number of instructors were seconded to the OBI for the purposes of this course, some from operational duty and others working in the training centre. Alpha district D/O Willie Maher was one of the former, chosen for his experience with DFB’s hazmat response capabilities. Though hazmat incidents are perhaps less frequent than others, sub officers play an important role in these and other events, dealing with smaller incidents as the incident commander, filling the role of sector commander at larger scenes, managing resources or provide reports along the chain of command.

“Equally they would have to look after their own crews, wearing of correct PPC, identifying that it’s a hazmat incident, making use of the information resources that we would have at a scene. They’ve been given a general overview of all the different skills they might be called upon to manage at a hazmat incident, big or small,” D/O Maher says. “I think the students themselves have stepped up to the plate as regards their professionalism, their punctuality, their dress, and it has been noticed by the other courses. These people are taking on this challenge and they are progressing, they’re fully engaged with the process. The questions they have asked in the lessons are very appropriate, very apt, and there was good engagement with the students on the course. There was a definite desire for learning.”

Sub officers

Tom Gallagher

Changing roles

The motivation behind the students’ move from firefighter to sub officer is varied, from a desire to have more responsibility to a chance to experience other facets of the job. Others are seeking a change in their careers, looking for new challenges. “I’m in my twentieth year in the job – Tallaght for 13 years and Tara Street for seven. It’s time for a career change, I’ve done firefighting for 20 years now, I want to move onto the next step,” says Sub Officer Tom Gallagher. “I’m apprehensive but looking forward to it! I was in the acting position a good bit in the last year in my own station, so I have an idea of what is expected of me. I’m looking forward to it – a new station again.”

For Sub Officer Niall Grant, a 20-year veteran of the brigade, it’s a chance to maintain his interest in the job. Having worked at a number of stations throughout the past two decades, absorbing as much as he could, progressing to junior management is a logical progression. “As a firefighter you can go to different stations on transfer, you can absorb as much as you can either on the ambulance or within a role as a senior firefighter,” he says. “But at a certain stage of your career, it’s going to come to an end… I would have gone from station to station to always keep fresh, I’ve done an awful lot within that window of 20 years as a firefighter. And now this is just another station to refresh in the job and take it to another level.”

The new sub officers are beginning life in their new stations, in new roles that require new and more advanced responsibilities. The course might be finished, but their education is ongoing. “This development course has been full on, we’ve received over 40 lectures on a wide variety of topics,” explains Caroline Gunning, who has been with the brigade for the past 17 years. “There’s a lot to take in. We’ve had really good instruction so we’re taking away a big toolkit, and we’ll learn as we go on.”

Instructor Stephen Dillon, a Station Officer in Foxtrot District, is proud of the class and believes they will prove valuable to the brigade in the years ahead. “I’ve worked with many of these guys – I’ve worked with them through different watches through my career,” he explains. “A great asset to Dublin Fire Brigade, one and all.”

Review: The Fix Is In

The Fix Is In

In August 2007, two FDNY firefighters lost their lives inside the Deutsche Bank Building. Now, a new book examines the story of what really happened.

Until early 2011, 130 Liberty Street, New York City was occupied by the Deutsche Bank Building. Heavily damaged during the attacks on September 11th 2001, the process of dismantling the building began in 2004. Three years later, just before 4pm on August 18th 2007, a seven alarm fire ignited on the building’s 17th floor.

Spreading across ten floors, which contained polyethylene sheets designed to prevent the spread of asbestos that was being removed from the building (among other fire accelerants), the fire would burn until later that night, by which time it had injured 115 firefighters, and claimed the lives of two – firefighter Robert Beddia (Engine Company 24) and Joseph Graffagnino (Ladder Company 5). The story of that day, and the events and conditions that led to the deaths of those two men, is told in The Fix Is In: The Deutsche Bank Building Fire Conspiracy, the work of J.A. Graffagnino, whose son Joseph died as a result of injuries suffered in the Deutsche Bank building that day.

Throughout the book Graffagnino builds his case against those who had responsibility for razing the building to the ground. Many of the facts unveiled are staggering – Graffagnino recounts how the building engineer told a FDNY officer that the building’s standpipe system (a series of pipes designed to supply water in a building for either the occupants or firefighters) was still operational that day, though crews arriving on the scene to deal with the fire found otherwise. Graffagnino recounts in meticulous detail the various shortcomings and shortcuts taken by those responsible for removing the Deutsche Bank building and their contribution to the events which unfolded on Liberty Street. 

Though at times a little repetitive, Graffagnino presents an interesting account of each organisation involved and their background, detailing the intricate web of interconnected relationships and some rather unsavoury pasts. The narrative is boosted by interviews with firefighters of varying ranks who were there that day, offering a personal insight into what happened from inside and outside the building.

Simply mourning his son and moving on was not an option for Graffagnino. The book, the result of eight years of work, is the fascinating and harrowing culmination of Graffagnino’s efforts to seek out the truth of what caused the fire, resulting in a scathing condemnation of bureaucracy, compliance failures and a lack of accountability.

Retired members: Harry O’Keeffe

Harry (bottom row, far left) and his colleagues in DFB.

Conor Forrest caught up with Harry O’Keeffe, a former firefighter who spoke about his career with Dublin Fire Brigade, his role as a special service man, as well as his efforts to improve the workplace for his fellow firefighters.

One hundred years ago, a small group of men and women marched out on the streets of Dublin, Enniscorthy and Meath to proclaim an independent Irish Republic. It was an event that would change the course of Irish history, though perhaps not exactly how Padraig Pearse and his comrades in arms would have imagined. It was also the year in which Dublin Fire Brigade’s oldest firefighter was born, three days after rebel leader James Connolly was executed in Kilmainham – one Harry O’Keeffe.

To say Harry has led an interesting life would be something of an understatement. Born in 22 Holles Street in May 1916, he grew up alongside the new State that had its origins among the ruins of Dublin that year. His childhood was a happy one, with a loving family, and among his earliest memories is attending the State funeral of Michael Collins, perched on his father’s shoulders at the age of six.

In those days, jobs were scarce, but he managed to find employment in his early teens, first with Cantwell and Corcoran, which produced soft drinks, where he was interviewed by union leader Jim Larkin about the company’s employment policies. That was followed by a stint with the Grand Canal Company, and then the Calendars Overhead Cable Company – Harry cycled every day from Boyne Street to work in Drogheda, beginning at 4am and camping out during the week as the work moved further from home. Wicklow became a fond destination during his teenage years, particularly Kilmacanogue, and he often cycled there on his own or with friends to a cottage they had rented on the side of the Sugarloaf. Among the first group of girls invited to the cottage was one Teresa Maxwell, his future wife.

Harry was presented with several tokens on his 100th birthday

Onwards and upwards

Having trained as an electrical and mechanical engineer in his youth, this stood to Harry when an opportunity to join Dublin Fire Brigade arose, halting plans to move to Canada with Calendars. From many hundreds of applicants, only six were ultimately successful – including Harry. The manner in which he secured his job was perhaps an indication of the impact he was to have on DFB. “I was up in Castle Street, I went in before a few men, one of them was the young chief, Comerford. He was doing most of the speaking and he was summing me up,” Harry tells me. “When he was finished, I said ‘do I get the job?’ ‘Do you get the job? We’ll let you know in due time’.” This, however, was an unacceptable response in Harry’s mind. “Says I, ‘I’ve waited a long time to get this far, and I’d like to know where I stand.’ So he talked to the other men and said ‘Well O’Keeffe, you can take it you’ve got the job,” Harry recalls with a smile.

He began his new career in 1938, under the command of Major Comerford, an ex-Irish soldier, and later under Captain Diskin following the untimely death of the former. “Him and I got on pretty well together,” Harry says of Major Comerford. Harry spent the majority of his DFB career in Tara Street as he was what was then known as a ‘special service man’ – because of his electrical knowledge, he was tasked with maintaining and servicing the old fire alarms on the street, which operated before the introduction of telephones.

It was this role that prevented him from travelling to Belfast during the Blitz in 1941 – despite volunteering to travel – as he would have been difficult to replace should the worst happen. Among the many stories from Harry’s career with DFB, that of his role in the bombs that dropped on Dublin during World War II stands out, particularly those that fell on the Terenure area in South Dublin early in the morning of January 2nd 1941. That story was captured in The Bombing of Dublin’s North Strand: The Untold Story by Kevin C. Kearns, as explained by a colleague of Harry’s who joined DFB at the same time, Paddy Walsh.

“This bomb hit the end of a terrace of houses, at the back garden. Made a crater in the garden and the house fell in, but not much fire. They were up-market houses, a place where there was a Jewish settlement. A woman was trapped there, in her bed. The roof had collapsed down and the joists were all criss-crossing on the bed,” Walsh recalled. “Now I was just five foot nine but another lad with me was a hardy fella, Harry O’Keeffe. So we got in and everything was in a heap, the front of the house was still intact, but the whole back was down. There was one joist holding most of the roof still on. So he got down on his hunker, if you like, and held it. Then he says to me, “I’ll hold that and give you time to get in.”

Harry O’Keeffee (seated)

Changing times

Workers’ rights were extremely important to Harry, and he expended great effort in agitating to improve the position of firefighters in Dublin, quickly developing a reputation as a force for change. When he first joined the fire brigade, firefighters brought food with them to work. However, noting that their counterparts in the UK and Northern Ireland had modern catering facilities where Dublin did not, Harry took the cause to City Hall, fighting long and hard for a mess to be provided for the stations.

“It was disgraceful the way the Dublin Corporation treated the working men that had to be fed. There’s not a place in the world that has their staff in but they make some provisions to feed them. I took it up to City Hall and I had a row with one of the officials there,” he explains. That particular official had the temerity to enquire as to whether the firefighters would like their daily dinner at the Gresham Hotel. Harry struck the table and said he would get the men to fi ll their larders with tinned food because it would be a long strike.  Eventually, the Corporation caved. Once they got the mess, however, it still wasn’t quite plain sailing. “We had a woman who used to look after the mess. She had a fancy for George O’Dowd,” says Harry. “George fell in love with a retired schoolteacher. And when she heard that, there was skin and hair flying!”

A life well lived

Harry’s tireless efforts on behalf of his colleagues and peers – which included reducing the retirement age for the city’s firefighters – didn’t cease when he left DFB in 1963 to join the Corporation Rents department, a job which provided a more stable life for Harry and his young family, along with an improved salary. His son Brendan recalls a story of Harry standing before a judge in the case of a tenant in arrears. Despite Harry working for the Corporation, he was pleading on behalf of the tenant, which perplexed the judge. Looking back, it’s clear that Harry’s life was one of dedication – to his family, his colleagues in Dublin Fire Brigade, and to his lifelong principles.

“I believed in the worker getting his right to speak, to criticise whatever was chosen for him. I didn’t believe in a man being too quiet, and not allowed to speak his mind. So I spoke up,” he tells me, his voice suddenly strong. “I stood up on a few occasions and I spoke to the whole lot of them [his colleagues]. I would have a go at them – ‘we can’t be falling out with ourselves, it is important that we unite. Unity is strength, we must stand together’.”

As with all of his tales of his fascinating experiences, Harry sums it up best himself. “It was quite a chequered life,” he says with a characteristic smile.

A man ahead of his time

Harry was an avid reader, a trait sparked in early life, and he would regale his children with stories of exploration and adventure around the fire (his sons Brian and Brendan, son-in-law George and grandson Ciarán would follow him into the brigade). His other passion was singing, and he was known for his rendition of Night Time in Nevada. He was also

He was also fascinated by space. In those days, meat would arrive wrapped in butcher’s paper, and Harry sketched out details of how a moon landing might happen. In July 1969, his visions were vindicated as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Nobody knows if this drawing still exists, but included on the sheet was a list of DFB colleagues who had signed up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.