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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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Surf rescue

Surf rescue

The Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club is saving lives in the water and on the beaches along Ireland’s west coast. We speak with co-founder Peter Conroy to discover more.

Surfing isn’t just a sport for warm weather water, it’s a global passion. In fact, Ireland’s reputation as a surfing hotspot continues to grow, despite weather that is somewhat different to Australia or California – places like Lahinch, Bundoran and Tramore are all ports of call for surfers from Ireland and beyond. Though undoubtedly exhilarating, surfing can be also a dangerous sport. There’s a very real chance of drowning, of being overcome by waves that are stronger than they appear, of being caught in riptides or washing up on the rocks. However, if you get into difficulty on the west coast of Ireland, chances are you could be rescued by a Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter or one of his colleagues from the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club.

The club was co-founded by Peter Conroy, a firefighter based in No 3, who joined the brigade in 2004 after completing a Master’s in International Disasters Engineering & Management from Coventry University. Water was always in his blood, growing up as a competitive swimmer and discovering the world of surfing while lifeguarding on the beaches of Clare. During his down-time, Peter would take a board and hit the waves around the Cliffs of Moher, quickly becoming hooked on the sport.

As the years went by he began tackling larger and larger waves, surfing both in summer and winter, and five years ago he was nominated for one of the top five biggest barrels (the hollow part of the wave when it is breaking) surfed in the world, representing Ireland at the XXL awards in LA. “It was the Oscars of surfing, featuring the best in the business,” Peter explains. “I had pictures on my wall of people who were over there, and I was in the same category as them!”

Club members with Coast Guard Rescue 115. Photo: Peter Conroy. Main image: Team members in the sea at the Cliffs of Moher, where some of the most dangerous rescues are carried out. Photo: Clem McInerney

Tow rescue

The Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club was born out of his love of surfing, founded in 2006 after Peter began tow-in surfing – surfers are towed into a breaking wave by a partner on a jet ski in order to catch higher and faster moving swells. Surfing one day beneath the Cliffs of Moher, Peter was trapped and was forced to swim through 20-foot waves to safety as the jet skis were unable to reach him. Relaxing in a pub afterwards, he and his friends realised that they should be able to rescue themselves, and others. A trainer from England was brought in to demonstrate the uses of the jet ski beyond its towing capabilities, and the group realised that the skis could be used for rescue purposes.

“With my degree and my work in the fire brigade, I started to implement more procedures that would allow us to be much safer out there on the water,” he says. “I broke my back a few years ago – we had a ski out there and the sled on the back could be used as a spinal board, so it’s very handy that way.”

From there the club’s reach began to expand, rescuing surfers in distress along the west coast and putting rescue boxes in place at the bottom of cliffs containing medical supplies, a VHF radio, survival suits and other useful items, ensuring that the team could access medical supplies in places unreachable by the skis. The group also began installing defibrillators in local hotels, which benefits both surfers or others in distress in the water or on the beaches, as well as the local community. They also coordinate with other voluntary emergency services like the Coast Guard, working where they cannot go or assisting rescues when required. Regular training exercises are carried out with the Coast Guard in Shannon, though the Club tries to involve the Coast Guard as little as possible, dealing with minor incidents on their own.

“We mainly concentrate on whitewater work, anything from the beach to 300 metres out, that’s our speciality. The Coast Guard isn’t allowed in there anymore – in the summertime there are lifeguards on the beach from 11am to 7am to deal with that area, but once you reach rocks and similar terrain there’s nobody really to cover it,” says Peter. “We’re trying to promote the Club in such a way that the Coast Guard can call on us as a speciality operator to implement rescues. They know we can do it, because they’ve called on us on occasion in the past.”

A training session with the Danish Lifeguard Federation on jet ski familiarisation. Photo: Peter Conroy

Developments

Looking ahead, Peter hopes that the club will continue to grow, welcoming new members alongside vital financial support to fund their operations, equipment and training. The club is now certifying people in Rescue Jetski Operations, a three-day course on Friday evening, Saturday and Sundays that trains competent rescue jet ski operators and swimmers.

“We’re pushing that more, and we’re also doing more with different organisations, like the Coast Guard helicopter,” says Peter. “We were down at the EMS Gathering in Kinsale [this year], working with them to demonstrate that the jet ski and the rescue sled on the back are the only thing that a water rescue needs, because it’s the only thing you can transport a spinal case on without compromising C spine. There is no way of putting a person with a spine injury onto a boat without comprising C spine, and if the helicopter comes they’ll winch with a broken back. We have a sled we can transport them on and bring them back to a harbour while keeping them secure.”

For more information on the rescue club or how to join, search for Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club on Facebook.

Firefighting on high

A team from Dublin Fire Brigade has been working hard on updating and developing the brigade’s high rise firefighting plan, coordinated by District Officer John Chubb. 

When you think of a city dominated by high rise buildings, Dublin doesn’t immediately spring to mind. New York, of course, and Tokyo. London perhaps, and Dubai. However the term high rise buildings, as B watch District Officer John Chubb explains, doesn’t solely refer to buildings that tower 50 or 60 stories above ground level, but rather those of five stories and above.

“A more focused way to describe it is a building that the fire service has to depend on the provisions within for fire safety, whether active or passive, such as sprinkler systems, dry riser systems, smoke control and ventilation systems. Any structure that necessitates moving away from our fire appliances, which is our toolbox, and start depending on the builders’ and the engineers’ vision of fire safety, we would regard as a structure that requires firefighting tactics appropriate to high rise,” he says.

Measured approach

Fires in high rise buildings require more complicated operational approaches than most structure fires. Tasks that are normally considered routine for most fire departments, such as locating and attacking the fire, evacuating occupants, and performing ventilation can become very difficult in high rises. As a result, Dublin Fire Brigade’s high rise emergency management plan is currently undergoing an extensive update by a team led by D/O Chubb. It’s by no means a new concept for the city – a plan was put in place for the towers in Ballymun back in the 1960s – but changes in Dublin’s built environment in recent years have necessitated a response.

“In essence, any fire department anywhere in the world is in a constant state of revision – they continually evolve to account for the characteristics of the built environment,” says D/O Chubb. “In the last 10 years we have had an explosion of building here – at its peak in 2006 we were building 100,000 properties per year. In addition, government policy is looking towards housing a growing population, starting to lean towards more and more high-density buildings. DFB has been evolving its strategies, taking note of these developments.”

Updating and developing a high rise firefighting plan that takes into consideration the myriad challenges these buildings present is no easy task. Alongside changing scenarios once you travel 10 or 20 floors into the sky, DFB’s current fleet of aerial appliances can reach a maximum height of seven stories, which means that interior operations have to be conducted in buildings beyond that level, reducing the tactical options available to incident command. Though vehicles capable of scaling larger heights are available on the market, Dublin’s infrastructure has to be taken into account, in particular a warren of narrow streets that wider vehicles simply couldn’t pass through. Elevators within these buildings are not always suitable for firefighters – special firefighting lifts are required that can overcome issues associated with smoke and water ingress. Multiple occupancies also pose a significant threat. In a smaller apartment block you might have four or five families, and evacuation can be carried out quickly and efficiently. In a high rise building that could combine offices with residential apartments, that number can quickly rise into the hundreds.

There are other issues too. Reflex time (the time it takes from arrival on scene to getting water on the fire) can be increased greatly – a high rise situation necessitates moving equipment from the fire tender to higher floors, rather than simply running hose from an appliance across the street and into a normal two-storey house. Water pressure is another concern; when you try to move water to elevated levels you’re trying to overcome gravity and you lose the pressure required to operate the standard fog nozzle. To counter that they’ve gone back to the smooth bore nozzles, which require less pressure to get water from A to B.

The impact on personnel cannot be underestimated either. Before they add any equipment, the average firefighter will carry around 10kg of PPE, excluding a BA set. Add a hose, forcible entry equipment and accountability systems used to track personnel inside a fireground and you’re pushing 25kg, the limit recommended by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). The brigade’s personnel are undoubtedly a hardy bunch, well trained and well drilled, but hefting 25kg up 20 stories in smoke and heat can get quite tiring very fast.

“All things considered, we’re dealing with a very complicated fire, we’re dealing with delays in getting our assets and our resources to a point where we can deploy them, and we have issues with command and control, because the command communication chain is extended by the difference in where the commander would have to set up and where the firefighters are going to deploy,” D/O Chubb explains. “You’ve also got an issue with communication because of Faraday shielding in steel structures, which sometimes makes radio communication impossible.”

Training with the smoke curtain. Photos courtesy John Chubb

Plans in place

The process of updating DFB’s high rise response plan began back in mid-2016 (though incremental modifications have always been put in place), scheduled to run for two years although D/O Chubb believes that it will be ready well in advance of the deadline. The project is multi-tiered and features multiple work streams, incorporating health and safety, fire prevention, EMS, operations and external partners. Insight from those within the brigade has proven vital – fire prevention officers have provided their in-depth knowledge in relation to building regulations, while the team has also utilised external engineering expertise. EMS staff have also provided insight into how EMS operations must be conducted within the high rise structure as opposed to exterior to a building on fire.

The above challenges, and others, are the focus of this plan, and D/O Chubb and his team have looked to their colleagues beyond Ireland’s borders in search of best practice and innovation, considering and investigating a number of innovative devices already in use in brigades across the world. Take the smoke curtain, an ingeniously simple device that can be affixed over the doorway to a burning room, preventing smoke from filtering into the rooms or corridors beyond, aiding evacuation procedures and reducing smoke damage. Or the Fognail, which allows responders to fight fire from outside a room by penetrating the walls or doors using the tool and injecting a fine water mist inside.

Once the plan has been completed, the next step will be disseminating its contents to all fire brigade personnel through comprehensive training and continuous professional development programmes. “A challenge that we have when we develop new practices or techniques is that we have to be sure that we disseminate that information in an even-handed way, and that the actual message is standardised. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re developing a curriculum. We have identified two key areas: the skills people need to have, and the knowledge they need to have,” says D/O Chubb.

Practical skills include firefighting shaft operations, firefighting tactics, ventilation strategies, working with a building’s water supply, search operations, EMS operations, and command and control. The cognitive element is also important, and the curriculum will educate personnel on fire alarm systems, high rise building construction, firefighting lifts, fire behaviour, sprinkler systems and smoke control systems, providing a well-rounded knowledge base on which the brigade can build.

This project is far from being a paper exercise in procedures and policies. D/O Chubb describes B watch HQ as the “fulcrum” of the project; testing the effectiveness of the strategies developed, discovering what does and doesn’t work, and pushing themselves to their limits, augmented by crews from Phibsborough, Donnybrook and North Strand. Two full-scale exercises have been carried out in high rise buildings across the city, and many more conducted in HQ, all of which will contribute to future learnings and the final plan.

“The crews are doing much more than is expected of them on a daily basis, and their response has been phenomenal,” says D/O Chubb, who stresses that he’s merely a facilitator in developing these plans, and that nothing would happen without cooperation at all levels of the brigade. “It’s a big project, one that couldn’t function if we didn’t have support from the top down. We’ve had to query every single thing we do, and ask hard questions of ourselves. And once you have that type of honesty, and you know where to look for the latest ideas or best practice, you usually end up with positive results,” he adds. “A lot of work was done in New York and in the UK. We have an open mind and we’re happy to look at what’s out there and take the best from everyone. My job, effectively, is to learn from what other people have developed, to stand on the shoulders of their expertise. It really is a team effort.”

On parade: Recruit Class 1/2017

Class 1/2017 successfully completed their training programme at the end of May.

The passout parade is organised as a graduation ceremony for the recruits and their families and friends, and provides them with an opportunity to showcase the skills they have learned over the past 16 weeks to their loved ones. With the sun beating down on the OBI’s training yard at the end of May, a total of 50 recruits from Class 1/2017 received their scrolls and completed the passout ceremony, looking forward to the beginning of their new careers – 48 from Dublin Fire Brigade and two from Waterford Fire Service. The average age of Class 1/2017 is 25.5 years – the oldest is 48 while the youngest recruit is just 20. Lord Mayor of Dublin Brendan Carr addressed the recruits at the beginning of the parade, noting his pride and that of the city’s. “This is a highlight of your 17 weeks in training and we know that the city

“This is a highlight of your 17 weeks in training and we know that the city have taken you away from your normal and everyday life,” he said. “I want to thank your partners and families, your mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, for allowing us for the past 17 weeks… to be able to put you through this rigorous training session you went through. The people of Dublin, as you well know, are very proud and we have great respect [for] our emergency services, and with good reason.”

The demonstration of skills including a very impressive foot drill demonstration, consisting of 600 individual movements that were memorised and performed flawlessly. Following a community fire safety demonstration, the recruits then demonstrated their skills in a high rise rescue, hazmat incidents, an RTC with extrication and removal of patients to hospital, a response to a domestic fire incident including the use of breathing apparatus, and finally a highline rescue. At the end of the demonstrations the recruits lined up in front of the gathered crowd to receive their scrolls – the Silver Axe award was presented to recruit firefighter and former Defence Forces member Darren Murphy. “I was looking for a change and I felt that Dublin Fire Brigade could give that change to me. It’s different from the Defence Forces because you’re learning new skills,” he told TheJournal.ie. “I wouldn’t have done anything with the BA through the Defence Forces, or road traffic collisions, so it’s totally new skills that I’m learning while bringing the skills I had from the forces in with me to the fire brigade. It’s a great service to give to the city and I wanted to be a part of that service.”

Chief Fire Officer Fleming also spoke to the newest members of Dublin Fire Brigade, first paying tribute to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, in which 22 people were killed and dozens more injured. “While this is a day of celebration, I think we should acknowledge the horrific attack in Manchester, and our thoughts and prayers are with the relatives and friends of the families involved, and indeed with our colleagues in the emergency services,” he said. “However, we have gathered here today to celebrate the passing out of Class 1/2017, which comprises 48 recruits from Dublin Fire Brigade and two recruits from Waterford Fire Service. This is a proud day for many people, primarily for the recruits of Class 1/2017, all of whom are reaping the rewards of their commitment over months of arduous training and hard work. For the instructors of Class 1/2017, under the guidance of course director A/D/O Stephen Wylie and assistant course directors A/D/Os Colm Egan and Mark Fay, all of whom have been instrumental in realising the potential of each recruit. And for you, the families, friends and loved ones, you have given the vital encouragement and support needed by each recruit in meeting the demands of their new job.”

In his speech, CFO Fleming highlighted the high standards at the DFB training centre, which are reflected in the quality and the professionalism of each of the graduating recruits. These standards have led to the OBI’s recognition as a national training centre for firefighting in Ireland. “This has also led to the provision of training for other full-time fire service recruits, and it is a very important step in the provision of harmonised national training standards,” CFO Fleming noted. “This is due in no small way to the dedication of all of the training staff here. I would also like to pay tribute to Assistant Chief Fire Officer Terry Kearney, the Brigade Training Officer Gerry Stanley, and to Breeda Melvin and the administrative staff here at the training centre.”

The recruits have completed a total of 29,120 hours of instruction from DFB instructors alongside training from Dublin Bus, An Garda Síochána, Renault and Luas, preparing them for the wide variety of incidents they are sure to encounter in the years ahead. Irish fire services, including Dublin Fire Brigade, have a proud tradition of serving communities across the country, well respected by the communities they serve. Going forward, the members of Class 1/2017 will have a duty to continue this tradition.

“The history of our service is interwoven with the history of the city itself. We are very proud of our long-standing service but it also imposes a duty on us, a duty to uphold the traditions and standards of our service. The training you have received here is to enable you to serve the people of Dublin in their hour of need, but it is also to keep you safe while you are doing that,” said CFO Fleming. “Every recruit here is following in the footsteps of a long line of firefighters who have carried their badge for their fire service with pride and honour. You are entrusted with that duty, and I am confident that you will carry it out faithfully. Finally, I wish each of you every success and fulfilment in your future career in the fire service. I have no doubt that you will continue to deliver a first-class service to the citizens of the city and county that you serve.”