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The social scene

DFB’s Sports and Social Club recently held two fun-filled social nights for members in Dublin city centre.

Dublin Fire Brigade is a social organisation – different stations are involved in various events in their local communities, and firefighters across the job are often promoting or taking part in sports, historical or social events in the city. It’s an aspect that the DFB Sports and Social Club is keen to promote and, after a period of absence due to the recession, the annual club nights returned in late 2015, initiated by committee member Paul Marsh from Dún Laoghaire and held in the River Bar on Burgh Quay. A change in the tender process for vendors for events like the kids’ summer party freed up some funds, which Marsh suggested the Club invest in reviving the social nights. “We cover the families with the kids, we cover everything from athletics to cricket – there is a gap there, I think, especially as there are two new classes of recruits,” says Paul.

The first social night of 2016, on November 17th, was held for those on B and D watch, while A and C watches got their turn the following Thursday night – the idea was to bring together those who wouldn’t normally meet one another starting or finishing a shift. Each night featured spot prizes, a certain amount of free drinks and party games, and pitted a member of each watch against one another. “I brought people up and had a quiz – we had a phonetic alphabet quiz for the lads in the control room, questions involving the fire brigade and medical questions,” says Paul. “I got one from C watch and one from A watch, just to get a bit of banter and a bit of craic going. This year, because we had two classes of recruits, we focused on them. I think the recruits enjoyed getting involved.”

Alongside increased attendance on the previous year’s social nights, the Club received a boost in the form of 20 new members. As a result, the social nights are very much back on the Club calendar. “What we’re hoping to do this year is a 999 night – that’s what we used to do in the late nineties,” Paul adds. “We had a couple of them – nurses, guards, firefighters – when we had the Ierne ballroom. They were brilliant nights and I’d love to get them going again.”

Getting to colleagues in DFB is the idea behind these nights out – Paul explains that the fire service is a job in which morale plays a huge role. But it’s also an opportunity to get to know people you might not ordinarily meet. “If there’s good morale you’ll work a lot better…you’re working with guys for 15 hour shifts,” he says. “The next step would be to get to know the people that are in the hospitals, or the guards when you’re out at these incidents. I just think people work better when they know each other that little bit better. You do the 40 hours a week together, but when you get to know them on a social basis as well, you’ll see a different side of them, and I think it helps.”

Class of 2016

Recruit Class 2/2016 participated in the passing out parade held in the OBI last October.

Dublin Fire Brigade welcomed 50 new recruits into its ranks on October 6th last, as Class 2/2016 successfully completed their 15 weeks of training and passed out from the DFB training centre in Marino. The ceremony was attended by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Brendan Carr, Dublin City Council Assistant Chief Executive Brendan Kenny, and the Mayor of South Dublin, Guss O’Connell.

Over the 15 weeks the recruits completed more than 37,000 combined hours of training at the hands of 60 DFB specialist instructors, complemented by instructors from An Garda Síochána, Dublin Bus, Renault Trucks and Luas. During the event they showcased their impressive range of training, covering a wide variety of skills ranging from working with BA sets and swift water rescue to dealing with road traffic collisions, Hazmat incidents and emergency first response.

Speaking on the day, Lord Mayor Carr noted the city’s pride in witnessing another cohort of highly trained firefighters beginning their new careers. “We are proud to have trained yet another class of recruits this year over the past 15 weeks. The calibre of the recruits passing out is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the instructors and of the recruits themselves,” he said. “Dublin Fire Brigade provides a vital service for the city and county of Dublin and I have no doubt that all new firefighters joining the ranks of Dublin Fire Brigade will continue to uphold that proud service.”

The Ultimate Price

In October 1936, three Dublin firefighters lost their lives in a fire at the Exide Batteries shop on Pearse Street.

On the night of October 5th 1936, three of Dublin Fire Brigade’s finest lost their lives when a routine fire on Pearse Street delivered a cruel surprise. Located within striking distance of DFB’s headquarters on Tara Street, a barber’s shop and hotel occupied Number 163; an Exide Batteries shop was located on the ground floor of 164, along with several vacant first floor offices and a family of seven on the top floor. The basement of Number 164 was home to a factory, where the batteries were manufactured and stored. Writing in their seminal history The Dublin Fire Brigade, Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead describe a dangerous scene – several gas cylinders on the factory floor, and a basement back wall modified with a timber and felt annex. “Housekeeping generally in the factory was poor and there were boxes, cartons and their inflammable contents thrown around the factory floor,” they noted.

At 10.50pm that night, Thomas Kelly, who lived with his family on the top floor, spotted a fire in the building below. As he told the inquiry into the blaze the following year, he grabbed some clothes and evacuated his family from the building. Four minutes later the first crew from DFB arrived, with 12 men, a motor pump, turntable ladder and turncock. Despite all the equipment present, water supply posed an immediate problem with three hydrants failing to supply adequate pressure, and one onlooker described the pressure as “not enough to put out a bonfire”. Officers began the search for an alternative in nearby Merrion Square and Westland Row.

Believing that the Kelly family was still trapped on the top floor, three firemen – Robert Malone, Thomas Nugent and Peter McArdle – had already entered the premises when an explosion rocked the building at 10.58pm. It was the last time they would be seen alive. A second explosion followed the first, and in the confusion that followed their absence wasn’t noticed for an hour.  Malone’s wife passed the scene by chance, and stopped knowing that her husband would be involved. “Some seconds later there was a terrific explosion and I knew I would never see him again,” she later explained.

Those explosions sent the fire out of control, and the gathered crowd looked on at a chaotic scene, as the firefighters struggled to combat the flames with little water, and as the roofs of the three-storey buildings at Number 163/164 collapsed inwards, knocking parts of the back wall. “The streams of water from the nozzles of the hoses, instead of being dead-straight, were hoop-shaped,” said one witness. “Obviously there was no water pressure worth talking about… the word inadequate has been used, but the pressure was much worse than that. There was a lamentable shortage of water.”

The fire continued to burn until around 2.30am, with later reports suggesting that it had burned itself out rather than being extinguished. Once it had cooled, firefighters quickly entered the building, carrying out a frantic search for their missing colleagues. Despite the danger posed by the ‘smouldering debris and falling masonry’, the search continued until some time after 4am, when the first body was recovered from the rubble. It would be several hours before the remains of the other two men were discovered, aided by off-duty firefighters and members of the public.

Commemoration

Eighty years on from that fateful day, the three firefighters’ lives and deaths were marked at a sombre wreath-laying ceremony in Glasnevin. The ceremony was attended by a number of DFB personnel both serving and retired, as well as descendants of those three men, including Stephanie McArdle – Peter McArdle’s daughter. “Dublin Fire Brigade has been involved in a number of events in this, the centenary year of the 1916 Rising. However, this to me is the most sombre and reflective, both from a personal point of view and also the role that Dublin Fire Brigade performs in society, and the personal and high cost that can accompany this,” said Chief Fire Officer Pat Fleming, who spoke at the graves which lie side by side in Glasnevin.

An immense outpouring of grief flooded Dublin city in the days that followed the fire and the deaths of Malone, Nugent and McArdle. Their coffins lay in state at City Hall and their funerals took place on October 10th, bringing the city to a standstill as some 50,000 people gathered to pay their respects. Alongside Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, a funeral cortège wound its way through the streets to Glasnevin Cemetery, pausing outside Tara Street fire station where the men had served before their untimely deaths. Malone’s coffin was draped with a tricolour – he had served under de Valera in D Company at Boland’s Mills during the Easter Rising, and had fought in the War of Independence; he was survived by his wife and two children. Nugent was engaged to be married, and McArdle left behind a wife and seven children.

Pearse Street

CFO Fleming with family members of the three firefighters, including Stephanie McArdle.

“Their funeral, to this final resting place in Glasnevin, brought Dublin to a standstill as the city mourned its lost heroes, and here we return today to remember their loss and their sacrifice,” said CFO Fleming. “As a service, much is expected of our firefighters, and I would like to recall the words used in a newspaper editorial of the time in relation to these men. ‘More courage is demanded in the ordinary work of a fireman than in almost any other type of work’, and that is still true today I think.”

Aftermath

In December 1936 a tribunal of inquiry was announced, sitting between January and March of the following year in a bid to determine the cause of the fire, any issues of negligence, whether the water pressure was sufficient to tackle the fire, the efficacy of the steps taken to extinguish the flames, and why the three firemen lost their lives. The recommendations reflected on planning regulations and Dublin Corporation, including Dublin Fire Brigade. As to the cause of the blaze, a number of theories were put forward and no firm conclusion was ever reached, though a cigarette was deemed to be the most likely cause. Exide Batteries was not found to have been in breach of the law, despite the presence of inflammable materials in large quantities and a failure to safely store gas cylinders. An issue between the fire brigade and the waterworks department was highlighted, with the question posed as to whether DFB had correctly notified the turncocks (those in charge of turning on the water for the mains supply), or if a crucial valve had not been opened by the turncocks. The truth of what happened never emerged.

Dublin Fire Brigade as an organisation also came under scrutiny, with Captain Joseph Connolly enduring intense questioning. Water pressure gauges had not been checked before leaving the station, and the situation was likened to arriving for battle without any ammunition. The large turnout at the fire had meant that the rest of the city was left with very little cover. Equipment issues were also highlighted – firefighter Thomas Pott, who had survived the first explosion by jumping to safety on the flat roof of Number 165, had been issued with a cloth cap while new helmets were on order. For his part, Connolly noted that a better service could be provided with better resources. The tribunal’s report concluded that while individual officers and firefighters had acted bravely, there was a lack of supervision and direction on the part of senior officers, with the steps taken to combat the fire described as ‘inefficient’. The circumstances leading to the deaths of the three firefighters were noted as “sudden and violent explosions… increasing immediately the violence of the fire and creating a trap from which these men were unable to escape”.

Among the tribunal’s recommendations was the reorganisation of the brigade along with a more regular system of drills, that the water supply in the city be improved, prohibition of the use of basements for industrial or factory purposes, and the introduction of regular government inspections. Reform would take place within DFB, and quickly. A year later Captain Connolly had retired and was replaced by ex-army Major J.J. Comerford, who set about restructuring the fire service, moving firemen and their families out of the stations, introducing new equipment and recruits and a range of other reforms and investments.

Today the three fallen firefighters are commemorated with a plaque at 163/164 Pearse Street, while another monument to their sacrifice stands on the grounds of the O’Brien Institute in Marino. Eight decades on, they remain the most recent DFB firefighters to lose their lives in the line of duty. “These men acted in the best traditions of the fire service – they went in harm’s way and risked all for others,” said CFO Fleming as he stood by their graveside. “On that night 80 years ago they paid the ultimate price. We remember them and we honour them.”

In memory of Ian McCormack

The crew of B watch Dolphin’s Barn unveiled a garden memorial in the grounds of the station for their colleague Ian McCormack.

On Saturday August 20th 2016,  friends, family and colleagues of Ian ‘Frodo’ McCormack gathered in the garden of Dolphin’s Barn fire station for the unveiling and blessing of a memorial axe in his memory. The date marked six months that weekend since Ian’s passing.

Ian’s colleagues on B watch invited a small group of close relatives and friends for the unveiling shortly after the beginning of the night duty, with refreshments afterwards in the station mess hall. After an introduction from S/O Tom Doolan the local priest said a few short words and Ian’s son Alex cut the ribbon and unveiled the axe. The axe itself simply has the words ‘Frodo 1170’ sandblasted and painted onto it and is embedded into a granite stone in the garden and lit up in the evening with spotlights.

There are words of thanks needed for some people who were involved in bringing the evening together with the small project taking a few weeks to plan. The garden was brought back to life and rejuvenated by Chris Keeley (B watch) who spent days working tirelessly in the garden alongside an army of helpers with Martin Keogh there to supervise! The sand blasting was done by a local stonemason from Loughlinstown called Peter Kelly who gave his services for free and did a superb job as anyone who has seen the finished memorial would agree. A special thanks to Stephen McMenamy for sourcing the axe that was used.

Finally, a mention to Craig Lancaster who is manager of the Tesco Express in Dolphin’s Barn for his contribution of a community voucher to assist us in organising the refreshments, along with Third Officer John Keogh who also assisted us in the organisation of the evening. Ian is sadly missed by everyone but hopefully this small memorial will help his memory live on and serve as a reminder to us of the laughter and memories he gave us.

B watch No 2

Europe in the OBI

An EU Civil Protection Mechanism course was recently delivered in the OBI, focusing on coordination in the event of a disaster in Europe or further afield.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was established back in 2001, aimed at developing and enabling cooperation between national civil protection authorities across the continent. In the event of a natural or man-made disaster, EU member states can send assistance at short notice, with deployed teams undertaking specialised tasks including search and rescue, aerial forest firefighting and advanced medical posts. Any country in the world can request assistance, with over 200 received since its establishment, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Alongside coordinating a pool of resources, the Mechanism provides members with the opportunity to train their civil protection teams, allowing for the exchange of best practice and learning to increase effectiveness when responding to an emergency. The cornerstone of this training programme is the Operational Management Course (OPM), the first course specifically aimed at future deployments inside and outside Europe. The eight-day course targets national experts and European Commission representatives who seek to become potential team members or liaison officers as part of a European Civil Protection team sent by the European Commission. The course focuses on coordination and course topics include internationally agreed guidelines and procedures, planning, information management, ethics, code of conduct and the basics of safety and security. Those who graduate are equipped with the skills to function as a full member in an On-Site Operational Coordination Centre (OSOCC – outside Europe) or coordination setting (inside Europe), which facilitates coordination between the various agencies involved.

Dublin delivery

There is a consortium of five organisations involved in the delivery of OPM training, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), the Danish Emergency Management Agency (DEMA); Italy’s Protezione Civile (Civil Protection) department; the Icelandic police service and Dublin Fire Brigade. Ireland, Germany and Italy have been selected as course venues for this cycle of training.

Though the course is normally split into two – theoretical and practical – with each strand taking place in a different country, in 2016 (for the first time) both sections were delivered in Dublin in Dublin Fire Brigade’s O’Brien Institute in Marino. Assistant CFO Dennis Keeley was assigned the overall responsibility for the delivery of the seven day course, with D/O Derek Cheevers managing the logistical aspects of the course. A number of senior personnel from civil protection agencies across Europe took part in the course, which involved a fictitious emergency scenario in a country outside of Europe, known as a ‘third country’. During the exercise the coordination team was deployed to this outside country, met with the local emergency management authority and then coordinated the arrival of dedicated taskforce teams, or modules.

“There are a range of modules within the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, and their deployment to a country is dependent on the type of disaster involved. For earthquakes there are urban search and rescue (USAR) modules, for flooding there are high capacity pumping and flood containment modules,” D/O Cheevers explains. “If there are a large number of people that have been internally displaced and require shelter there are emergency temporary camp modules, if the drinking water supply has been affected there are water purification modules and if a large number of people require medical assistance there are advanced medical field post modules that can be supplied. These are just some of the modules available; there is an extensive list that can be applied to any disaster scenario.”

A member of the coordination team in the OBI.

Replicating field conditions is a big part of the course. Over time the exercise becomes more complex, testing the stamina and resolve of the team members, who sleep on camp beds and eat only MREs (meals ready to eat), as many affected countries will lack vital infrastructure. Course participants were required to develop a number of plans covering media queries, safety and security. The exercise also involved the coordination of a controlled evacuation, and meeting with people in the host country in positions of power. “It’s all about preparation, preparing them for a real incident. We try and replicate that as much as possible,” says D/O Cheevers. “They were not outside at any time, it all took place within the building, primarily around communications, meetings and coordination of incoming assistance.”

Though the number of Dublin Fire Brigade personnel who have been deployed under the EU mechanism remains quite small, D/O Cheevers notes that there is still a clear benefit in taking part in the course. Should Ireland find itself in the grips of a disaster beyond our control, and a request for assistance is made, those here who have completed the course could operate as host nation support officers with knowledge of the format of the incoming support – a member could be embedded within one of the incoming teams, acting as the liaison officer between, for example, Dublin Fire Brigade and a search and rescue team.

D/O Cheevers also notes a litany of people without whom the course would not have been such a success. Ably assisted by firefighters Troy Taylor and Darren O’Connor, he also highlighted the fantastic work of James McConnell and Dublin Civil Defence in providing much of the transport over the seven days.

“There are a number of people in the OBI that I need to thank – Brigade Training Officer Gerry Stanley and Assistant Brigade Training Officer Mark Wilson, Breeda Melvin and her colleagues in the office; Jim O’Brien who assisted with a lot of the transfers; Richie (Red) McDonnell who has been fantastic in preparing many of the exercise locations; S/O Martin Cooke who facilitated transport to Dublin city centre using our new double-decker bus for a walking tour of the city and social evening; Caroline Timmons from the IT department in Dublin City Council who worked with the IT experts from Germany in providing the extensive support required for such a course; and Lisa and her crew in the kitchen for the catering, with firefighter Simon Finglas also assisting in this area,” says D/O Cheevers. “We have two courses planned for next year, and the OBI will be a key part of that. It was very much a team effort – we worked long days, but overall it has been hugely successful.”

 

The Italian Job: Part II

Brendan Lodola reflects on a recent cycling trip to Tuscany, a wonderful physical tonic, and an extraordinary outing in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

Tuscany is one of the heartlands of Italian cycling and, having cycled in Italy for the past few years, an opportunity to share my wonderful experience is precisely what I had in mind when I decided to try gather a group of enthusiastic cyclists from DFB to ride through this beautiful part of the world. The group who came on this trip could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a leisurely spin over rolling hills, dropping into Tuscan village cafés, sipping Italian morning espresso, lazing over lunches in medieval towns and sloshing back one or two glasses of Chianti Classico in the local vineyards. That wasn’t quite my plan!

Little did they know that they would take in the four corners of Tuscany, conquering sections of the eight and ninth stages of the 2016 Giro D’Italia, stepping in and out of the Strada Bianche professional route (which starts and finishes in the medieval town of Siena) and covering part of the terrain of the L’Eroica amateur route over its white gravel roads which starts and ends in the town of Gaiole, not far from our base. With six months of training in Dublin, the Wicklow Mountains and further afield, we were ready for the challenge, or so we thought! These hills are described as rolling, but include climbs of over 20 per cent and long drags that go on for miles with decent gradients. This was going to be four consecutive days of cycling, more than 400 kilometres right in the thick of the hills.

After our journey from Pisa airport it was great to arrive at our base, Norcenni Girasole, warmly greeted by Paulo and his staff. Villa Norcenni, a rustic Tuscan villa and villino, is set in the heart of the Chianti hills with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We settled into our rooms and headed down to the restaurant where we were greeted by Claudia, Maria and Oanna who would look after us for the five nights. We had been travelling from early that day, so we were hungry and ready for some local Italian cuisine and we were not disappointed – traditional food at its best, washed down with a glass of Chianti Classico.

Siena

The next morning we strolled down for breakfast, the sun taking the edge off the early morning chill. Sitting, discussing the day ahead over coffee, there was a buzz in the air. Everyone was excited with what the day would bring. Our bike supplier Marco was spot on time again to set up everyone with their full carbon road race bikes. We had Jimmy and Domo (the backup support team) ready and waiting with the support car full of food and water – nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the day’s cycling. We were off! As we left Norcenni we took a left, straight onto a 10km drag, climbing past the small villages of Ponte Agli Stolli and Dudda. We were immersed within the historic olive groves, honey-coloured stone farmhouses and immaculately maintained rows of vines down sloping hills, with dense forests as far as the eye could see. What an opening to a day’s cycling.

We pushed up past our first peak, with Ciaran and Barry biting on the bit, then prepared for our first long descent into Greve! Dave O’Toole wove in and out, changing positions, capturing each rider as they descended down the winding roads at great speeds with the GoPro fixed to his seat post. It promised to be a special piece of footage, hopefully available on YouTube soon. We would get to climb up this 20km descent another day. Greve in Chianti was the finish of the ninth stage of the 2016 Giro D’Italia and we were about to cover a good section of that stage through the towns of Panzano and the fortress town of Castellina in Chianti. This is where we would try to contact our support team while taking a couple of snapshots of Mick and his big Gallo Nero on our way to Siena.

Piazza del Camp, Siena

Eventually we got on our way again with some big climbs towards a region between San Leonino and Topina, which I have to say took my breath away. A classical image of Tuscany rolled into view, with lines of cypress trees standing tall on driveways leading up to hillside estates, small olive groves sitting next to symmetrical lines of vines sloping down the rolling hills towards us, and hilltop houses and towers covered in terracotta tiles with fading hills behind. Did our multicoloured mob of road cyclists know we were, and would be for the next four days, riding through one of the most beautiful parts of the world? With all that in mind we still had 35km of hills to climb before lunch in Siena. Piazza del Campo, the venue for the Palio di Sien, where jockeys ride bareback circles of the piazza on thick layers of dirt, was a welcome restful haven. This magnificent medieval piazza is a focal point for the Italian cool with its narrow cobbled streets and stylish coffee shops surrounding the piazza. After a few tellings off from the locals because we were cycling on the pedestrian streets, we arrived at the Ristorante Alla Speranza. The sun beamed down as we had a few moments to absorb the historic Gothic architecture of the arena.

After much needed sustenance for the homeward stage, and with some tired legs, we gathered our bikes with a little encouragement from the local carabinieri. They didn’t like our 15 bikes propping up the historic pillars! We eventually reached our destination after a bit of assistance from Garmin, through challenging hills and parts of the L’Eroica route. This is a vintage race held every year from the town of Gaiole where cyclists dress up in vintage gear and ride vintage bikes over white gravel and tarmac roads. As we made our way down long descents towards Montevarchi the light was starting to fade, so we pushed it hard on the flat through San Giovani and on home to Norcenni. We covered nearly 140km with an elevation of just under 2,400m, with a lot of tired legs.

 

 

Caprese Michelangelo

Another beautiful day greeted us the next morning as we were about to take on a round trip of 150km to the birthplace of Michelangelo in Caprese Michelangelo. This was to be a route with a few drags and then a steep climb before we reached Caprese. Little did we know how much of an adventure the day was going to be!

We started out from Norcenni and turned right down the 4km descent into Figline Valdarno, the local town, with everyone feeling good after the spin yesterday. With barely 10km completed we came across our first obstacle; a road that finishes on one side of a stream and starts again on the other, without a bridge! And so the slagging began. We crossed the river with bikes over our shoulders and continued our spin on our first taste of the controversial gravel roads. “Do you know where you’re going Lodola?” echoed more than once from the back of the double line of 15 cyclists. “Of course I do, and I didn’t even charge you extra for the gravel,” I replied. You can imagine the response.

A little more concentration was required on the 5km of gravel before we reached a smooth surface again. We continued on and had our first bike casualty. Five of Barry’s spokes failed (nothing to do with all the bunny hopping he was doing) and we had to pull in and call for the backup team who were on the scene in minutes. After they finished their cappuccino of course! With the bike and rider in the support vehicle we began a section of stage eight of the 2016 Giro from Quarata to Anghiari with a little unexpected detour.

After contacting the transport department and arranging to meet them for a pit stop near Chiassa Superiore, we were fuelled up and began to head towards our first taste of a real Strade Bianche road (which I have to say was not in the original plans). I felt an air of disbelief from the group as the Garmin was bleeping for a left turn off the smooth surface. There were a few expletives heard in the background, not mentioning any names, but we pressed on. On such a bright day the white gravel really reflected back at us as we steadily munched our way along its surface. I was hoping that this would just be a few hundred metres and then we’d get back to the smooth stuff. It wasn’t to be. It took a while to adjust to the uncertain feel beneath the tyres. The road started to kick up in the thick of the forest and it became more difficult to control our bikes. “I’m expecting a bear to jump out from the trees and give me a hug,” a concerned Peter White explained.

Tuscany

Our first experience of a Strade Bianche road

This road had concealed sloping edges that could send you slipping off the road into the ditch if you strayed too close to the edge. The tight cambered corners have ridges embedded into their surface from the weight of heavy farm vehicles, which force you to ride wide rather than lose speed and rhythm on the bumpy inside line. This forced you to relax your body using your arms as natural suspension. You also learned to pedal smoothly and stay seated, which was more difficult – standing out of the saddle was not an option as the rear wheel would spin. Anticipating and absorbing any changes in the surface without overreacting or disrupting your tempo was a must or you ended up on your backside.

The only sound to be heard on the car-free road was laboured breathing; we had climbed over 500m in only 8km. We regrouped at the top of the climb with some pretty tired legs and a few looks of disbelief that we actually took that on and got to the top unscathed. Fausto Coppi and his arch-rival Gino Bartali would have been proud of us. They are probably the most famous Italian cyclists who raced in arguably the most famous Giro of them all, the 1949 Giro D’Italia. Tuscany was the home of Bartali, Coppi was from neighbouring Piedmont, and they were fierce rivals. With a few punchy climbs and a couple of steep sections of descent, which were pretty challenging, concentration was a must as we approached Caprese. Not surprisingly Michelangelo was not at home and the town was having a nap, so our lunch stop would be a short one.

Time was not on our side so a steady but determined mindset was needed to set off positively homeward bound, as this would be one of the most challenging sections of the day. Not only were we tired from our morning climbs, but we would encounter some more significant hills. Searching for somewhere to eat on the way home we came across a welcome osteria which could cater for 15 very hungry cyclists. A delicious bowl of pasta ragu freshly made by our host, some local chunky pieces of bread and aqua frizante (sparkling water) was just the tonic to recharge our batteries as we prepared to beat the fading light. With one more pit stop near San Giustino Valdarno, Dave P Byrne and Mick Whelan would get on their way with the transport team to get the other cars.

The final stretch of the day’s ride was about sheer determination and the group pushed hard along the relentless rolling tarmac, but we were forced to succumb to the light and pull into a mountainside town called Loro Ciuffenna and wait for transport. This was certainly a longer, more lively and interesting day’s cycling, where fitness and skill on the bike was very evident. There would be some very tired legs in the morning!

Montefioralle

The weather on our third day was once again sublime. There was a slightly pensive mood over breakfast brought about by our increased awareness of what we were about to let ourselves in for. On paper, this was to be the most difficult of the four days, with a loop of over 125km with nine big climbs and a total elevation of more than 3,500m without too many flat sections. As arranged the day before, Marco arrived at reception with a new wheel to restore our group to full strength. Between one thing and another we were behind time. With a sense of joy because of the fantastic countryside, and apprehension because we knew the terrain, we set off left up the Via di Norcenni, our legs adjusting again to a hard day’s cycle. We had covered this climb on the way to Greve on the first day and we looked forward to the upcoming long descent. In the arched loggias of the main piazza in Greve, while sipping on our espressos and cappuccinos, it was apparent that time would not allow us to get to reach San Gimignano before dark. Disappointed in not being able to see this medieval town, a decision was made to do a much harder but shorter course. Some would do hill repeats into a beautiful little town called Montefioralle, while a few others would, let’s say, have a longer brunch, then head back and practice for the evening tennis match. A likely story!

Tuscany

The Garmin facing off against our transport department’s trusty map

The transport team had already done a recce to the town of Montefioralle and beyond, warning us that even the support vehicle found it hard climbing the hills which led to this town. They weren’t joking – in 32km we climbed 930m. To take a passage from Dino Buzzati’s coverage of the 1949 Giro: “Surely it was a crime, in a sense, to make use of such enchanting scenery for such unrewarding, bestial labour”. I thought there would be a crime committed when we reached the top with the looks I was getting!

Once again vineyards, cypress trees, hilltop villages and villas were regular features of the surrounding countryside, providing a welcome distraction from the relentless hard pedalling! Montefioralle (sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), is a magnificent medieval village with narrow cobbled streets lined with small entrances to traditional shops and restaurants. Aromas of local Tuscan cuisine filled the air as we painfully climbed these great hills, giving us something to look forward to on our way back down later for lunch.

We welcomed the sight of the Taverna del Guerrino where we stopped for some lunch. Sitting on the veranda, we had a few moments to absorb this postcard-perfect part of the Tuscan landscape and enjoyed a well deserved meal of pasta, antipasti, dolci and a small glass of vino. Fuelled up and ready for the 20km climb on the way back that we had come down on the first day, we set off knowing the pool was waiting, not to mention the Dún Laoghaire tennis aces ready to give us a display of their ability. The two professional players were brought in to give the group a tennis demonstration – Domo ‘Statue of Liberty’ Campbell and Mick ‘Good at Corners’ Whelan.

It was obvious from early on that the opposition wasn’t up to much, with Dave ‘Good on the Dance Floor’ Kenyon and Ciaran ‘Shep’ McConnell not returning any serves. It was decided to split the teams up with one professional playing with one of the novices. This livened the game up a bit and drew a small crowd of onlookers. The serves were cutting and the slagging was quick and accurate. It wasn’t long before both teams warmed up and got into the cheating at full match pace. This encouraged the onlooking crowd to join in the banter much to the amusement of any passing onlookers. Eventually, after a couple of fiercely disputed sets, a ceasefire was called with all parties retiring to the bar for some well earned wine tasting.

Tuscany

Overlooking Florence from Fiesole

Fiesole

The final day’s cycling would be all smooth roads, as I knew this route from previous years. We would cycle an 85km loop with a 1,250m elevation gain – flat compared to the previous three days. We were heading north into a town called Fiesole which overlooks the city of Florence. With some tired legs and bodies out there a casual pace would be a welcome relief. But we were in the Chianti hills after all, so there were still hills to climb. “Pull it back half a click” was heard more than once through the group and the ones who didn’t say it were thinking it!

A long downhill brought us to the start of the mayhem of Florentine traffic. Surprisingly we got through without incident, apart from a few expletives from the local drivers. One more long drag would get us to the finishing town of the 2014 world championships, Fiesole. The mystical beauty of Fiesole, less than 10km outside of Florence, encompasses centuries of history and it is amazingly well preserved. Largely unknown by many, this small town hides a wealth of surprises including the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with the concept of flight, and the Roman amphitheatre that still serves as a stage for the Estate Fiesolana summer events. We were greeted with O Sole Mio by a local while having lunch, and we sang along with our version, Just One Cornetto! The last stretch of the final day’s ride would give us some nervous -15 per cent to -20 per cent descents out of Fiesole, with very tight hairpin turns requiring alł of our concentration. We cycled back for the last time to Norcenni in relative silence with the occasional bit of encouragement shared. There was just one more kilłer 3km climb left up to our base and there was still a lot left in some legs for a token race. The jury is still out on that one!

This was definitely a trip to remember. After what had seemed like torture at times, I think that there was a great sense of achievement. This group covered more than 400km over four days, on very tough terrain, with more than 20 hours in the saddle conquering some of the steepest hills you can find. Pretty heroic I think! So with that in mind I’d like to say that it’s the group that makes the trip, not the trip that makes the group, so well done everyone and thanks a million.

Tuscany

Hard earned refreshments in Siena

On behalf of the group, I’d like to say thanks to Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and Dublin Fire Brigade Sports and Social Club for their support. A big thanks to Liz Hanley for organising the fabulous cycling gear, to Mick Whelan and his brother-in-law for their support, and to Jimmy and Domo from the transport dept. Thanks also to CFO Pat Fleming, the Red Torch Restaurant, and everyone at Norcenni Girasole for looking after us so well. Next it was time to have a few well deserved drinks and maybe a twirl or two on the dance floor. Until 2018 then, salute!

Class of ’76

Jeremiah Greally reports on the 40 year reunion of Class 2 1976, who shared memories and recalled those who have since passed on.

The firefighters of Class 2 1976 had a jovial reunion on September 1st last at the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street in Dublin. The 26 recruit firefighters began their training at Kilbarrack fire station on August 3rd 1976. This was the same year that the Apple computer company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Heffo’s army defeated Kerry in the All-Ireland Football final and the Concorde entered service on transatlantic flights. All of this group of firefighters have now retired and there were lots of fond memories and discussions on the night.

Tributes were paid to the training officers: Third Officer Joe Kiernan (RIP), Third Officer Joe Bell (RIP), Third Officer John L’Estrange, District Officer Frank Collins and District Officer Harry Lawlor. All the officers did a sterling job moulding 26 lay people from all walks of life to become professional firefighters and work as a team. Also remembered on the night were some members of this group that have gone to their eternal reward, namely Firefighter Peter Leap (RIP), Sub Officer Gerry O’Byrne (RIP), Firefighter Frank Rock (RIP), Third Officer Martin McDermott (RIP), Third Officer Joe Kiernan (RIP), and Third Officer Joe Bell (RIP).

Standing from the back left: Victor Pointon, Dermot Dowdall, Brian Finney, Niall Farrell, Fintan Lalor, Terry O’Neill, Mick Finglas Larry Madden, Danny Colgan, Tom Byrne, Patrick Duggan, Michael Daly and Jeremiah Greally. Seated training officers:D/O Jim Byrne, D/O Frank Collins, F/F Alan O’Rourke, Third Officer John L’Estrange

The summer of 1976 will be remembered by many as one of the best summers we have had in the last 40 years. Twenty-six recruits assembled at Kilbarrack fire station to learn the craft and techniques required to become professional firefighters and ambulance personnel. The 14-week training was tough and gruelling but the rewards were to be felt for the rest of our careers.

We have seen many changes and improvements in the fire service in the last 40 years and I would like to state that today’s firefighters who also work as ambulance personnel and paramedics are as professional and competent as can be found anywhere in the world, and provide an excellent service to the citizens of Dublin city and county.

Man of fire: Captain Thomas Purcell

Thomas Purcell

DFB historian Las Fallon recounts the life of Captain Thomas Purcell, an innovative man who contributed immensely to Dublin Fire Brigade.

Dublin Fire Brigade has a long history. The municipal brigade dates back to 1862 but the city fire service itself goes back to 1711 and the purchase of the city’s first fire engine, a fact which is sometimes forgotten. In fact the 300th anniversary of the event in 2011 passed unremarked. Along the way there have been many who have made their mark on the fire service, but for any student of the history of Dublin’s fire service, or indeed of the Irish fire service, one name sticks out above all others: Thomas Purcell, Chief Fire Officer of Dublin Fire Brigade from 1892 to 1917.

Thomas Purcell was a Kilkenny man by birth, an engineer by profession and a firefighter by vocation. Born in Kilkenny in 1850 he joined Kilkenny City Volunteer Fire Brigade as a young man and, at the age of 26, he was awarded the silver medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire for his actions at a fire in the city. The citation for the medal states that it was awarded to: ‘MR. THOMAS P. PURCELL OF HIGH STREET KILKENNY IN TESTIMONY TO THE INTREPID AND VALUABLE SERVICE RENDERED BY HIM IN THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE AT A FIRE AT MESSRS HENNESSEYS, DRAPERS, KILKENNY AT HALF PAST ONE O’CLOCK ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 19TH 1875 WHEN UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES OF MUCH DANGER AND DIFFICULTY RESCUING THE LIFE OF MISS WHITE FROM IMMINENT DEATH.’

The medal was presented to him at the Guildhall, London in July 1876. Later in his life, while working as an engineer in Limerick, he would be involved in saving the life of a workman trapped 95 feet underground when a tunnel collapsed.

Thomas Purcell married Margaret Phelan of Oldtown, Ballyragget in 1880. They had three children, all born while the family lived at St. John’s Quay, Kilkenny. Tragedy visited the young family and two of their children died in childhood. Michael died at the age of four in 1887, while Thomas was just one year old when he died in 1889. The couple’s remaining son Pierce would go on to a long life and a distinguished career in engineering, ending up as Professor of Engineering at UCD.

Purcell’s qualifications as an engineer and his involvement in firefighting would combine in his next venture. Among those who applied for and sat the written examination for the post of Superintendent of the Dublin Fire Brigade when it was advertised in January 1892 was ‘T. Purcell, civil engineer and volunteer fireman’. Purcell sat a written exam and was one of five names shortlisted. He was appointed to the job of Superintendent (Chief Fire Officer) of Dublin Fire Brigade in March 1892 at a salary of £300 per year. He formally took command of the brigade from the retiring chief, John Boyle, on April 14th of that year.

Purcell took command of a fire brigade formed only 30 years earlier. The first chief, James Ingram, had founded the brigade in 1862 and led it through many dangerous escapades. Ingram died of tuberculosis in 1882. His successor, John Boyle, led the brigade for the next ten years. Boyle’s time as chief was marked by a number of unfortunate and tragic events. Three firemen died in two incidents during his time in charge of the brigade. John Kite, killed in a building collapse in Trinity Street in 1884, was the first Dublin Fire Brigade member to lose his life while on duty. Christopher Doherty and Peter Burke were also to lose their lives while fighting a fire in Westmoreland Street in 1891 when a ladder they were operating on broke and dropped the men to the ground from a height.

Purcell’s first test as Chief Officer came in August 1892 when a fire broke out in the huge South City Markets complex, a mixed use building of 30 retail units, living accommodation and which included a bonded warehouse containing 7,000 barrels of whiskey. The fire was dealt with skilfully in spite of the dangers and Purcell and his brigade came in for praise from all quarters.

Fortification

In the autumn of 1892 Purcell decided to visit the United States to study firefighting there and included a visit to a chief officers’ conference in Milwaukee. The visit was undertaken at his own expense and the DFB museum holds a medal given to him as a memento of his visit to the conference. He also left a diary (held by his family) which records the details of his trip on the SS Etruria. The diary reveals a human side to the man and is an interesting insight into Purcell both in the way he picks up on the technical details – the distance travelled each day, the amount of coal burned etc. – but also on his wry comments on his and his fellow travellers’ discomfort due to sea sickness. He also wrote to his wife recording the day-to-day life of the passengers during the voyage.

Thomas Purcell

A recent wreath-laying ceremony in memory of Captain Purcell in Deansgrange Cemetery. Photos courtesy Ray Bateson, the author of several books including ‘Deansgrange Cemetery & The Easter Rising’, which recounts the stories of 150 men, women and children associated with the events of April 1916 buried in the cemetery

Once back in Dublin, Purcell set about a reorganisation of DFB. Over the next decade his leadership would come to see significant changes within the brigade and in the fire safety of Dublin city. Through those years a series of major fires were faced and dealt with. In the background Purcell laid plans to improve the fire defences of the city. He planned a group of four fire stations to divide the city into quarters with a modern station in each, and saw this achieved at Buckingham Street, Dorset Street, Thomas Street and the new brigade headquarters at Tara Street. In response to the new electric tram system in Dublin and the opening of the Loopline railway bridge in the 1890s, both of which restricted the use of the brigade’s old street escape ladders, he would design a turntable ladder for Dublin that he was allowed to patent and which was popular in many UK brigades. It was one of the first effective turntable ladders in use. In 1898, following a visit to Belfast where he saw the Belfast Fire Brigade horsedrawn ambulance at work, Purcell designed an ambulance for Dublin and introduced the same service here.

Innovation and upheaval

Thomas Purcell had a huge interest in advances in the fire service internationally and visited fire brigades in the UK and in Europe. In 1901 he purchased the first Bader-Vajen smoke helmet to go into use in Europe (it was an American invention). The Bader-Vajen was the first breathing apparatus used in DFB and was worn by Purcell himself on May 13th 1901 at a fire in Green Street where four children perished. The fire was the scene of incredible bravery by members of the brigade. One fireman, Thomas Dunphy, climbed the escape ladder to rescue two children from the burning building under conditions of heavy fire. Purcell, seeing the danger, ordered that a hose be played on the fireman, who was badly burned in the rescue. Using the smoke helmet Purcell entered the engine for the opening of Thomas Street fire station in January 1913 and a motor ambulance, also built by Leyland, was also purchased around the same time.

The years leading up to the First World War were busy in Dublin on all fronts with political and social upheavals including the Lockout of 1913, the controversy surrounding the Home Rule Bill of 1914, the Curragh Mutiny by British Army officers in opposition to Home Rule and the foundation of both the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. In mid-1914 British troops opened fire on a crowd in central Dublin after the importation of arms for the Volunteers at Howth, and this was followed within weeks by the declaration of war against Germany.

After the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th 1914, Dublin Corporation introduced regulations to allow employees to join the British forces. Jobs would be held open, employees continued on half pay and military service would count as Corporation service for pension purposes. In spite of these inducements only two DFB members joined the British military out of the 189 Dublin Corporation employees who did so. Recent research has identified two recruits to the British military from each of the much smaller township fire brigades of Pembroke and Rathmines, which highlights the lack of interest among the unionised workforce in DFB in joining the Empire’s war. The main consequence of the war for DFB was the additional workload for the ambulances in helping to unload British hospital ships in Dublin Port and the increase in the cost of living and cost of services due to wartime inflation.

Thomas Purcell

Among those who attended the ceremony was Las Fallon (second from left), and Chief Fire Officer Pat Fleming (far right). Photo: Ray Bateson

Purcell and DFB would face their biggest test in April 1916. On April 24th, rebellion broke out in Dublin. Units of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army mobilised and held positions in Dublin city centre and elsewhere and declared a Republic. Throughout the week of fighting which was to follow, much of central Dublin was destroyed. Purcell directed the brigade throughout and after the declaration of Martial Law on April 25th he had to watch from the tower of Tara Street fire station as the city burned in what he called ‘the Great Fire’.

As soon as possible after the ceasefire and surrender on April 29th he mobilised his resources, including small groups of firefighters from the Guinness Brewery Fire Brigade and the Powers Whiskey Distillery Fire Brigade, and set to work. The brigade saved Jervis Street Hospital from destruction and contained the major fires burning in the city. In recognition of his work Purcell was awarded the Bronze Medal of the British Fire Prevention Committee, ‘….AS A TOKEN OF REGARD FOR THE SPLENDID WORK DONE BY HIM AND HIS BRIGADE IN MOST TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES DURING THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916.’

He was also awarded a cash bonus of £50 by Dublin Corporation as recognition of his work. The Corporation noted that his annual salary at this time was £500. In the aftermath of the fire Purcell was involved with the commission set up to adjudicate on compensation and sought compensation both for fire brigade property lost but also for a premises in Abbey Street in which he had a commercial interest.

End of an era

On November 16th 1916 Thomas Purcell was badly injured when thrown from his horse-drawn buggy while on the way to a fire in Suffolk Street. The carriage had not been properly hitched and in trying to bring the horse under control Purcell, then 66 years old, threw himself onto the horse’s back but fell to the side and was injured. His injuries put him in hospital and off work until January 1917. Purcell was not well during 1917 and in October he decided to retire. He retired in November 1917. He had built DFB into an efficient and well trained brigade which had proven itself in action time and time again. Thomas Purcell would retire to Dalkey where he lived until 1943.

In his later years he travelled widely and wrote a small book on a cure for sciatica which he had discovered on his trips to Germany with his son. He led a full life and left a proud legacy. His contribution to Dublin Fire Brigade was immense. He is an unsung hero. He is remembered in the DFB 1916 exhibition in Dublin City Hall and in July of this centenary year of the Rising Dublin Fire Brigade Chief Officer Pat Fleming, Acting Chief Officer of Kilkenny Fire and Rescue Service, John Collins, and the Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council, Cormac Devlin placed wreaths on his grave in Deansgrange in a dignified ceremony. Many members of the extended Purcell family attended as did representatives of the fire service, serving and retired.

Thomas Purcell lies in Deansgrange Cemetery under a headstone built to his own design. In memory of his native place his imposing headstone is made from Kilkenny limestone.

An unusual culprit

On a lighter note and as an indication of a wry sense of humour which sometimes surfaces among the serious paperwork of the Chief Officer, Purcell noted an unusual cause of fire in his list of major fires and their causes in his 1914 Annual Report for Dublin Fire Brigade.

Among a list of causes which includes ‘defective construction’, ‘electrical defects ‘ and ‘gas explosions’ we find ‘rats with matches’! At the time matches were made with a high gelatine content and were often gnawed by rats as a potential source of food. On occasion the friction from the rats’ teeth would cause the match to ignite and the unfortunate rodent, well covered with fragments of match, would become a veritable torch.

One such rat managed to start a fire in Dublin that year and so brought itself to the attention of the Chief Fire Officer and immortality in the archives of DFB.

 

 

From Kilbarrack to the world

We spoke with Kilbarrack firefighter and The GreenPlan founder Neil McCabe to discover more about his recent exploits. 

Six years ago, Neil McCabe’s life changed forever with the publication of The GreenPlan, a guideline for sustainable development within Dublin Fire Brigade that was three years in the making. Changes made within the flagship station, Kilbarrack, led to significant savings and the establishment of a ring-fenced fund for the sustainable development of other fire stations across the city, a project that is still underway today.

But Neil’s influence hasn’t remained within Dublin city, or indeed Ireland. In 2011, he was invited to speak in the UK’s House of Commons concerning climate change by the then coalition government, who sought his advice on how they could factor this issue into their budget. His expertise is also in demand across the EU, and he has served as an expert analyst providing improved ways by which to procure services for fire brigades. The opportunity to spread his ideas beyond our borders is certainly aided by his role as an Ashoka Fellow, part of a global network of social entrepreneurs striving to make a real difference in collaboration with those who can effect change.

“Because of that, as a social entrepreneur, it has pulled in a lot of big support, where people want to help make this happen because they believe in the whole ethos of what I’m trying to achieve,” he explains. “I’m very lucky for that. The vision for The GreenPlan is to improve the quality of life on Earth for present and future generations.”

His tireless work was most recently recognised by the International Corporate Social Responsibility Award, which he was presented with at the Mansion House in August. “The idea is that it’s saying that, for large corporate businesses, there’s finally a best practice that is genuinely sustainable, and that’s The GreenPlan. And they’re saying that large, global companies need to take on board The GreenPlan to bring real change to their businesses. It’s a huge honour to receive that.”

Heading Stateside

The impact The GreenPlan is having on a global scale is perhaps best highlighted by Neil’s participation in the 2016 Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI), an international exchange programme which brought 47 Europeans from 45 European countries to four different US states in a bid to enhance ties and stimulate economic growth between the US and Europe. “That was without doubt one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my life, other than getting married and having children!” he says with a laugh. Selected to represent Ireland by the US Embassy here, Neil was whisked to the US by the Department of State to spend a month there with the initiative. His time began in Washington DC with discussions surrounding entrepreneurship and innovation in the US, followed by two weeks at the helm of a business in Seattle, at the same time as Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn for $28bn.

“We actually took over the whole company that we went to, which was just a crazy experience. I was a firefighter the week before and then I was running a corporation in America! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says. The programme concluded with a week in San Francisco, with the fellows given the chance to attend the Global Entrepreneur Summit in Silicon Valley as guests of The White House at Stanford University. “Apart from the many adventures and experiences we had, we got to meet [former] President Obama who I can now say knows about The GreenPlan,” says Neil.

That’s impressive in and of itself, but that trip also saw Neil giving a lecture on climate change to some of the foremost business minds in the world. “If I could prove my point there I could prove my point anywhere else in the world,” he tells me. “One strange thing happened later that day – I met Reid Hoffman, the CEO and founder of LinkedIn. I had a masterclass on how to think in an American corporate way for social good, and while that was happening all I could think about was that two days beforehand he sold his company for $28bn while I was in Seattle!”

The Seattle cohort of US fellows from seven EU countries. Photo: Neil McCabe

Alongside meeting President Obama, he also had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Singularity University in the NASA Research Park in California, a think-tank that aims to get people to think outside the box, and spent a day there taking masterclasses on how to think different. At Google HQ he met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet. “To become an alumni of the Department of State for life is really a fantastic honour. I still haven’t fully digested or comprehended the scale of this, because the opportunities that are coming off the back of this are just so big in scale – it’s just an exciting time,” says Neil.

One such opportunity arose at the beginning of October last year, when Neil addressed the EU Parliament in Brussels on the subject of transatlantic trade. He was there as a guest of John Kerry, who told gathered leaders about the positive impact that Neil’s involvement in YTILI will bring to the US and the EU.

Moving online

Neil’s busy schedule doesn’t stop with presenting his ideas to some of the world’s foremost minds at Stanford University or in Brussels. Perhaps his main focus of late has been the release of The GreenPlan as a massive open online course (MOOC) – available at alison.com – giving communities across the globe free access to these materials in a bid to grow The GreenPlan to scale, and shifting the focus from fire brigades to communities around the world. In Ireland, seven communities are already enacting the principles of The GreenPlan. Mulranny in Co Mayo became the country’s first full accredited village, and was the overall winner at the 2016 Irish Responsible Tourism Awards. Dublin’s Lord Mayor Brendan Carr is also onboard, having pledged to contact every mayor in Ireland and urge them to both undertake this course and encourage others to do so.

“That has taken so much effort – writing the course content as a manual, writing the toolkit, preparing everything, the feasibility of whether communities will elect community leaders to take on the project,” he says of the project. “That has been more than full time! I really wanted to get the idea out that this thing called The GreenPlan does work, and it’s verified around the world as being best practice. The best way to do it is to give it away for free, to create real impact and real change.”

He’s also the co-founder of a young, vibrant clothing company based in Dublin which launched online last summer – Grown, an ethical clothing brand which places sustainability at the heart of its operations. Neil’s role is to embed sustainable development into every aspect of the business. The brand uses renewable technology to produce the energy required to make the garments, makes use of earth positive materials and inks and recycled water, while plastic materials are recycled and turned into wool.

Back to earth

Despite his growing influence around Ireland, the EU and the US, where he and The GreenPlan are making huge strides in trying to build a better future, Neil still works as a FF/P in Kilbarrack, which he tells me helps to keep him firmly grounded.

“The lads in the fire station are fantastic supports. They’ve got behind me on lots of different projects, but they also keep me grounded,” he says. “I’ve won so many different global awards, international best practice awards, and the lads get great craic out of saying to me the next day ‘don’t forget you’re on the ambulance on Wednesday night.’ And that brings you down to Earth pretty fast!”

Nevertheless, Neil is understandably pleased with the nine-year journey that has brought him to this exact point, where his creation is spreading across the world in a bid to generate change on a global level. “From humble origins in Kilbarrack fire station I can really see, finally, that this is going to happen properly. The fact that it doesn’t need me, and is completely non-exclusive, is something that I am really proud of,” he explains. “I owe that to my family, I owe that to my friends, I owe that to the lads in the station. I am now starting to see the full scale implications, and I am genuinely proud of it.”

Firefighters without borders

Firefighters Without Borders provides much needed equipment and training to fire departments and communities around the world. Conor Forrest spoke with President Russell Chalmers to discover more about the organisation’s conception, and how it has gone from strength to strength.

The location is a fire station in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Firefighters from the city and beyond have gathered to augment their skills or learn new ones, so they can provide a safer, more knowledgeable and effective service in their local communities. Standing over them, giving advice on everything from CPR to bandaging procedures, their trainers have travelled over 3,300km to be here, working with Firefighters Without Borders (FWB), a Canadian charity that was established 14 years ago in order to share equipment and expertise with their less well-supplied colleagues around the world.

Genesis

The story of how FWB was born is an interesting one. In 2002, charitable organisation World Vision, a child-focused group which sponsors children in developing countries, reached out to firefighters in Mississauga, the city in which their Canadian headquarters is based. World Vision had been working on a project in Peru, trying to improve health and education in a community in Ventanilla, outside Lima, which subsequently suffered a significant fire that destroyed around 200 homes. Before they could continue their work in Peru they needed to make the community safer in terms of security and fire prevention.

Crew members Captain Hills, Tom Gojak, Andrew Melville, Aron Reppington and Jamie Strak undertook the very first trip to the Ventanilla district in Peru, on their own time and at their own expense, as part of the World Vision Destination Life Change (DLC) volunteer programme. The DLC programme provides Canadian volunteers with the opportunity to make a difference by teaching English, building homes, helping to care for orphans and in innumerable other ways. The crew approached local fire stations and corporations seeking equipment donations to help boost the capabilities of the Peruvian fire brigade. That collection grew to include firefighting gear, Spanish training manuals and rescue equipment.

Main image: A competition conducted for Honduran firefighters. Above: Fire cadets in training. Photos: FWB

“They approached some folks that they knew in our department, [and asked] if we would be interested in putting a group together to go down there and teach the firefighters in that community about fire suppression, fire prevention and also to provide them with some equipment that they needed,” Chalmers explains. Following their mission to Peru, which consisted of two trips to provide equipment and training, the Mississaugan firefighters quickly realised the scope of what they could do around the world.

Since then, FWB has brought its expertise to communities across the globe, from Peru to Macedonia (Mississauga is home to a large Macedonian community). “Some communities require or request equipment, so we will meet standalone requests. We send equipment throughout the Caribbean, South America, and we get significant interest from Mexico,” he says. Their most recent expeditions have been to Honduras, where they worked with the country’s national fire service on a sustainable basis. “Our motto is really based on sustainability, and rather than just go into a community and give out gear and maybe do some training, what we really try to do to achieve sustainability is to provide our training in the Train the Trainer format, and we really like to work with the national fire service in a strategic, top down approach,” says Chalmers.

The missions to Honduras provided a real opportunity to set that model in motion across a total of six trips, working with the national fire service to identify people from across the country who could become trainers within their own organisations. “The national fire service brought them to the capital of Tegucigalpa, we did Train the Trainer programmes for them in a number of disciplines over our six trips,” Chalmers explains. That included first aid, CPR, and a high standard of training in relation to hazardous materials.

“They had a real need for auto extrication, to learn techniques both with some very basic hand tools and also powered tools including spreaders, cutters and things like that,” he adds. “We also taught them techniques in adult education – how to teach so that they would be comfortable when they went back to their home communities, that they would be able to deliver these programmes. So we supplied some teaching aids for them as well to be able to go back and replicate the programme.”

There are also opportunities on home soil. Canada is home to over 850,000 aboriginal Canadians known as the First Nations, with 634 recognised First Nations governments or bands stretching across the country. Poverty remains a major issue.

“One of the first areas that we realised that really has a dire need for help is in Canada itself, and some of our First Nations or indigenous communities,” says Chalmers. “They might be very remote communities – although they do get help from the federal government, it’s not what it could or should be. We work to support them where they fall through the cracks in terms of perhaps issuing smoke detectors, public education programmes, doing training on the equipment that they may be given if there is inadequate training provided. It surprises a lot of people that in a first world country our services would be needed, but that’s something we’re also focused on.”

Expansion

The firefighters who travel with the charity provide their time on a voluntary basis. Thus far they are all Canadian firefighters and mostly from Mississauga, though as Chalmers explains there are plans to expand the organisation to the US and Europe. Chalmers himself has an extensive background as a firefighter in Canada, having served as a platoon chief for the Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services – the third largest fire department in Canada – both in their training and operations divisions, and was responsible for the development and oversight of programmes in hazardous materials response, auto extrication and incident command. Following his early retirement in 2008, he joined the Pre-Service Firefighter Education and Training Programme at Toronto’s Seneca College as a programme coordinator. These days he is fully retired, and donates all of his spare time to Firefighters Without Borders.

“Right now they are mostly Canadian firefighters, but we certainly are growing as an organisation. We have attained our charitable status in Canada which is a significant step, and we do have growth plans to expand not only in North America but hopefully to have European chapters or perhaps chapters in the UK at some point. That’s part of our growth strategy, to meet the needs that we see out there,” he says.

Two generations of female firefighters in Honduras. Photo: FWB

FWB isn’t the only organisation of its kind, and Chalmers tells me about meeting a number of grassroots groups that provide similar assistance. “They do tremendous work out there as well. It’s really heartening to see all the folks seeing a need and meeting the need. I imagine the same thing is true in Europe.” That assistance is made possible partly due to stringent Canadian equipment and PPE standards, which require that equipment must be recycled after 10 years. Should it be simply taken to a landfill or instead put to good use elsewhere?

“The fire service here, while they understand the need for that, it’s very frustrating to put perfectly good equipment and see it go into a landfill, so they have been really supportive and receptive of what we are trying to do,” says Chalmers. “It seems like a no-brainer really, it seems pretty obvious that there is surplus equipment here that is going unused – it’s perfectly acceptable and perfectly usable, and at the same time there’s a need in third world countries.”

Challenges

One of the main challenges Firefighters Without Borders faces is ensuring that they get in touch with the right people, and that any equipment or training provided is delivered into the right hands. The organisation will seek out a relationship with the country’s national fire service, but this may not always be present or in a position to work with outside agencies. As a result FWB receive a large amount of requests from small committees or outlying fire departments in communities that aren’t covered by the national service.

“One of the challenges for us it to identify first of all that these people are legitimate, and they are not some third party presenting themselves as fire department representatives who may just want the equipment that they’ll resell. That’s one of our challenges – to identify that the requests are legitimate and to quantify what their needs are,” Chalmers explains. Ensuring that equipment or other supplies get through customs without any problems can also be tricky – sometimes it can be held up while a larger than anticipated fee is paid, or if items disappear onto the black market. “That’s why we really like to work with a larger agency nationally, so that they can facilitate getting equipment into the country and through customs, and distribute it equitably in the country without it going astray,” he says.

Funding is another major issue. Alongside smaller fundraising events, the organisation’s largest fundraiser today is a firefighter calendar, which they sell at various venues and malls in the lead up to Christmas, as well as online. However, Chalmers’ funding vision is much broader. “At the same time, as we grow we are reaching out to a number of corporate sponsors, particularly Canadian companies or multinational companies that may have a presence in the communities where we work. So that’s our focus as well – to increase corporate sponsorship,” he explains.

Future

As the organisation’s reach continues to grow, the future looks bright and Firefighters Without Borders is truly living up to its name. As Chalmers explains, a number of projects will get underway this year, including pilot projects with the First Nations community in Canada, a partnership with the government of Saint Lucia to provide them with equipment and training in a number of areas, and a request from Bolivia for help in training volunteers. Their reach is expanding, and Chalmers hopes to grow their horizons beyond the grassroots stage.

“Our goal as an organisation is to try and connect the dots and get equipment to people that need it, and to supply training on how to use it. That’s what we try to do,” Chalmers says. “I haven’t seen any organisations that are rising above that grassroots level to reach major stakeholders – corporate sponsors, working with national fire services. So while it’s being done at a smaller level, I really think there is a need to be able to do it in a more strategic, organised approach. That is what our organisation is trying to do, to approach it more on a macro level. So far we are having some very good success.”

For more information, see www.firefighterswithoutborders.org.