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Testing skills: Mass casualty training

Firecall looks back on a Dublin Fire Brigade mass casualty training exercise held last July, with trainee paramedics responding to a simulated large-scale terrorist attack in Broadstone.

Trainee Dublin Fire Brigade paramedics were given a baptism of fire last July, tasked with responding to an unknown mass casualty incident on the Luas line between Broadstone and Cabra, revealed as a terrorist attack with a large number of injured and deceased civilians.

Dublin Fire Brigade has had a working relationship with Luas over the past number of years concerning the Cross City works, ensuring they can respond to emergencies in and around roadworks adjacent to the new Luas line. The track is due to open to the public by the end of the year, but DFB officials wanted to run an exercise with Luas before trams hit the tracks. And, given events of the last year or two in London, Manchester, Paris and Nice, it became clear that the opportunity to train for a potential terrorist attack on Irish soil could prove highly useful.

Third Officer John Keogh made the initial contact with Luas and other stakeholders – a long process involving indemnities, insurance and other administrative tasks, with final approval coming just four weeks before the deadline. The Luas line between Broadstone and Cabra was chosen because it’s one of the few sections isolated from the main roads, winding along the old rail network.

“Using Broadstone as the base, we saw the opportunity of checking out some of the scenarios that might be in place if an incident happened on the Luas track where we hadn’t got direct access off the road. It was an opportunity we didn’t really want to miss out on,” T/O Keogh explains.

The scene of the training exercise. Photos courtesy Trevor Hunt and John Keogh

ORGANISATION

With permission granted for the exercise to go ahead in Phibsboro, the task of organising the incident itself fell to paramedic tutors A/SOFF Karl Kendellen and A/S/O Derek Rooney, charged with fleshing out the details and looking after everything from logistics to compliance with health and safety, traffic management and more. They crafted a highly realistic scenario for what would be the largest mass casualty exercise in DFB history, with 44 trainee paramedics, 60 casualties, and members of the gardaí, ERU, ASU, the Civil Defence, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Luas among those involved on the day.

Testing both the skills of the paramedics and communication lines between DFB and Luas, the exercise began with a call confirming a potential terrorist incident on the line, with an ambulance manned by two recruits arriving from Phibsboro fire station – the station that would turn out to a real incident along this route. The scenario saw four terrorists crashing a car into a tram, overturning the vehicle on the tracks before entering the tram and shooting and stabbing passengers. A second incident later in the day saw an attack on another tram by a second terrorist cell.

“One of the things we did differently from previous years, and to try and make it more realistic, was that we staggered the response and the numbers that were allowed into the incident at any particular time,” says A/SOFF Karl Kendellen. “If an incident happened for real in Dublin, we wouldn’t have 30 or 40 paramedics turning up at the same time – you might only have one or two fire appliances or ambulances, depending on the information that’s given.”

Members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU), backed by the Armed Support Unit (ASU), cleared the scene before the paramedics could begin triage as per the PHECC clinical practice guidelines. Patients were removed by order of severity to a treatment tent before transportation to a field hospital set up in No. 3 and manned by Dr Niamh Collins, a consultant in emergency medicine who is heavily involved in the DFB training programme – a training exercise for her team also.

“It’s really important for us to build up links with these people. These are agencies that we are working with all of the time – a smiling face of somebody you know helps, particularly in a highly tense environment like this,” says co-organiser A/S/O Derek Rooney, whose primary brief was to produce a risk assessment for the exercise, identifying potential hazards and ensuring the risks were controlled. “[The recruits] were brilliant, in fairness to them. They had a carry, from the initial incident near Broadstone, of approximately 400m. They were in full PPE, which obviously is hard work anyway, carrying 15 or 16 stone – colleagues and members of the public who volunteered and were moulaged (mock injuries), so they had real-life injuries, and a lot of them were shouting and roaring which put a lot of pressure on the recruits. It went very well. A thorough success from everyone concerned.”

Trainees in action.

LESSONS LEARNED

The exercise was a huge success, a large-scale operation that went off without a hitch, and the paramedic trainees excelled on the day. The exercise also highlighted where DFB’s response to such an incident could be improved and further strengthened the links between the emergency response agencies and medical crews who would work side-by-side in the event of a real attack.

“It was great to be a part of, it was a real achievement by everybody. The work that the paramedic tutors and the paramedic trainees themselves put in into making it a success just can’t be quantified,” says T/O Keogh, who notes the efforts made by Broadstone, Luas, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Dublin Civil Defence, Sisk, the Order of Malta and St. John’s Ambulance in ensuring everything went as planned, and for facilitating their every need on the day. “I just can’t describe how much of a success it really was. To have everybody fully compliant, doing what they were tasked to do without any problem whatsoever – it was a pleasure to be involved in.”

Syria to Swords

Above: Joanne Doyle with crew members in Swords.

Defence Forces NCO Joanne Doyle spent a year working with Dublin Fire Brigade as part of her postgraduate advanced paramedic internship.

Lebanon. Liberia. Chad. The Golan Heights. Swords. One of these is not like the other. The latter, along with Finglas and Tara Street, is where advanced paramedic Sgt. Joanne Doyle – a non-commissioned officer (NCO) with the Defence Forces – spent the best part of a year attached to Dublin Fire Brigade while completing her AP internship. Joanne is usually based in the Defence Forces Training Centre in the Curragh, Co Kildare, but her drive to improve her skills within the medical and paramedic fields have seen her career take an interesting tangent.

“I joined the medical unit earlier on in my career – I liked the medical end of things. I did a paramedic course in 2005 – all of the trips that I’ve completed overseas have been from a medical perspective. The opportunity to join the advanced paramedic course came up after my return from the Golan Heights, so I thought it was a good opportunity and decided to do it,” she explains. Joanne’s background is in training, and she taught in the medical school in the Defence Forces training centre for a number of years. She was promoted several years ago to the rank of sergeant, and is now in charge of the outpatients department for the training centre. “It deals with occupational medicine, primary healthcare – any soldiers presenting sick, for annual medicals etc.,” she says. “I still teach in the Defence Forces and you’re still expected to be a soldier as well as a paramedic. I have been trained in different spheres, not just the medical aspects. In that respect not every day is the same – no more than working on an ambulance here! Every day is different.”

All Defence Forces recruits follow a similar path – 17 weeks of basic training, followed by 3 Star training, and specialist training courses at a later stage. Joanne always had an interest in further education and set her sights on joining one of the core units – staffed by soldiers with a specialised skill. Her first step was to complete a ten-week military medical course in the Curragh followed by ambulance-based skills, including the use of a defibrillator. In 2005 she undertook a paramedic course with the National Ambulance Service, learning skills that would stand to her on a number of overseas missions. Deploying overseas with other United Nations peacekeepers can be an interesting experience, not least because you have an opportunity to work with people of different nationalities and backgrounds and see how they approach certain challenges or situations.

“When I was in Syria I worked with Fijian soldiers. A lot of them were civilians who were contracted in to work for the army for two years – they spent two years overseas. They come with huge clinical backgrounds,” says Joanne. “The two types of missions that we do are peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Normally all personnel are based in a camp and the situation would dictate whether you would do a ten-day patrol or whether the area needs to be patrolled. But everything that leaves the camp, such as patrols, there’s always an ambulance and there’s always a doctor. Sometimes you’re just based in a camp looking after the medical welfare of the personnel – there are always slips, trips, falls, different types of injuries. Spending six months overseas, people get sick or they get injured. [But] you’re still a soldier, so you’re still carrying a weapon, you just carry all your other items and a medical bag [too].”

Joanne Doyle

BACK TO THE BOOKS

It’s more than two years now since Joanne first began training as an AP through University College Dublin (UCD), having decided to take the next step in her career, a process she describes as challenging, though made easier by the Defence Forces’ policy of allowing students like Joanne to focus on their studies. Although her work in the Defence Forces won’t make use of her skills as often as a shift in Dublin City might, she felt that the ability to make greater clinical interventions, particularly in difficult situations overseas, would stand to her and those under her care.

“You need to be able to provide interventions, give some sort of medication for pain relief, utilise a more advanced set of skills to provide more clinical benefits to the patient that you’re dealing with,” she tells me. “If we deal with Irish soldiers that are injured, they usually aren’t injured badly. But we don’t always have helicopters to evacuate them. If I need to move a patient you don’t always have that facility, so you’re managing the patient for that bit longer – you could be waiting a few hours before air support arrives. Here you’ll get an ambulance within a reasonable length of time; you don’t overseas because the operational situation is obviously different.”

Her first contact with Dublin Fire Brigade occurred during the Block 3 internship, a six-week stint on the road supervised by a doctor or professor in medicine. Once she had passed her exams, Joanne was keen to complete her postgraduate internship with DFB, realising that it would provide her with a wide range of experiences and learning on the job, not to mention a rank structure and a team spirit ethos similar to that of the Defence Forces. Some informal enquiries were made, followed by a formal meeting – the issue of indemnity from the Department of Defence had to be resolved among others, although Joanne describes this process as ‘straightforward’.

“I thought that Dublin Fire Brigade was a much better option for the volume and variety of calls, and exposure to different types of clinical situations. My interaction with the Defence Forces was limited for the year, because the Defence Forces will let you gain your exposure and your experience for 12 months before you return,” she explains.

Her initial point of contact in DFB was Third Officer John Keogh, a former member of the Defence Forces himself, who investigated the possibility of Joanne coming on board for the year and worked with EMS Support Officer Martin O’Reilly to sort out indemnity, insurance cover, Garda clearance and the myriad administrative issues that had to be overcome. During her 12-month stint Joanne worked on C watch, primarily between Swords and Finglas, with weekly shifts on the AP car based out of HQ and several weeks in No 8, broadening the range and type of incidents to which she responded.

“Martin O’Reilly dealt with my schedule. He was absolutely fantastic, I always received it weeks in advance,” she says. “I always knew where I was going – it was very professional.” Those three stations were chosen to give Joanne a broad overview of the incidents DFB APs and paramedics deal with on a daily basis, with different population profiles and risk factors in each location.

“We tried to give her as much scope as we could to get a good view of everything that was happening. Her primary location was in Swords fire station with C watch out there, which was a great benefit to her at the start because we had three APs on the watch. Any time she was responding on the ambulance, more than likely she was going to be with an already qualified and experienced AP,” Third Officer Keogh explains. “We had a few priorities when we went to introduce her to the station, [including] the local protocols that DFB has as regards dealing with RTCs, medical cases, any cases where the fire tender is involved. Additionally, there was a recruit class going through the training centre at the time so we were able to slot her into several modules that provide recruits with an overview of the incident command system that we operate, and how the officer falls into the equation.”

Joanne with Third Officer John Keogh and EMS Support Officer Martin O’Reilly.

BACK TO WORK

Joanne has since completed her year with DFB, which she refers to as one of the highlights of her 19 years with the Defence Forces. She returns to a perhaps less hectic life at the Curragh where any given day could see her leading driving courses (she’s also a driving instructor), joining heavy armament shoots in the Glen of Imaal in case of injuries, or simply tending to the medical needs of personnel on the base. “It’s an absolute adjustment!” she says with a smile. “I’ve been out of the Defence Forces for two years on and off between being in UCD and working with Dublin Fire Brigade. I will work as an AP but I won’t work on a daily basis on a frontline ambulance.” Still, Joanne brings back a wealth of experience having had the chance to practice her newfound skills in a more clinically busy environment than she would experience with the Defence Forces, and to shadow and work with DFB APs who have been practising for a number of years.

“In her time here she probably spent more time on the AP car in DFB than any of our own APs, so she received huge exposure to incidents. She’s going back to a job now where she won’t do anything like what she’s done over the past year. It was a great asset for her, and a great asset for the Defence Forces to have that kind of background going back into their service, a good understanding of how the civilian EMS side operates,” says T/O Keogh, who notes that by the end of her year with DFB Joanne was well-known across Foxtrot District, deferred to as the clinical lead if she was the only AP on site. “She also got on really well [with the crews], she got involved in all of the social events that were run between Finglas fire station and Swords fire station. She was fully involved really with everything that was going on in the station, and they treated her just like one of the crew.”

The relationship with the Defence Forces also continues to blossom – a second AP has since begun his AP internship with DFB, a good sign of things to come. “We’re hoping that continues with Darren McDaid – he’s going to be with us for a year. Hopefully we will continue that development between ourselves and the Defence Forces because it’s great to be able to do it. We’d love to be able to facilitate it more,” says T/O Keogh, a sentiment echoed by Joanne.

“The Defence Forces is delighted because they would like to have a relationship with Dublin Fire Brigade and to keep that relationship open,” she tells me. “I absolutely loved every shift with Dublin Fire Brigade. I’ve met brilliant people, I’ve made great friends. I think Dublin Fire Brigade has some of the best APs – there was always something to learn, as every clinical case is totally different. It was brilliant to work with really experienced advanced paramedics who have seen everything and done everything. It was a great opportunity to work with them. If I wasn’t retiring in two years I would definitely consider applying for Dublin Fire Brigade. I think it’s a great opportunity for people who have any interest in the EMS or the firefighting side. I think it’s a great career.”

Retired member profile: Rory Mooney

Above: Marion and Rory.

Conor Forrest sat down with retired firefighter Rory Mooney, who spoke about his career with the brigade and his voluntary work with orphaned children affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

It’s more than 36 years now since the tragic Stardust fire that saw 48 people lose their lives and a further 214 injured when flames tore through the popular nightclub on Dublin’s northside. The harrowing events of that night have echoed through the proceeding decades, with the findings of the tribunal of inquiry – which concluded arson as the likely cause – disputed ever since. One of the emergency responders on duty that night was Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter Rory Mooney, relatively new to the job having joined in 1978. Despite having been marked for ambulance duty, a colleague on sick leave meant he was tasked with manning the phones that night.

“That was a totally different ballgame,” he explains. “The records of the Stardust are all in my handwriting. I ended up eight hours on the stand giving evidence in the Stardust Tribunal. The only person who spent longer on the stand, I believe, was the Chief Fire Officer T.P. O’Brien. Nothing could prepare you for it. I just answered as best I could. ‘And why did you do that?’ ‘Because that’s the way I was trained’. Simple as that.”

Rory’s 31-year career in the brigade began, as with all recruits back then, with a stint in Tara Street, following 14 weeks of training in Kilbarrack – one of the last classes to do so. He recalls being handed the job of being ‘on the bunk’ at headquarters on his first night, manning the phones from midnight to 6am, and taking the 6am to 9am early relief shift the following morning.

“It’s all computerised these days, but it was pen and paper in my day,” he explains. “But it was good, it was an education in itself. During our training we had to go into Tara Street at least one or two nights and visit the control room and see how it worked, give yourself an insight into what was going on in the place.” After five years in Tara Street, where he joined other junior men in manning the northside stations whenever there were shortages, Rory was posted to Buckingham Street station on D watch for three years, before moving to Phibsborough where he would spend the rest of his career, eventually retiring in 2009. Back in those days, he says, the ambulance was as busy as it is today, even in 1978. “If you were in work and you knew, for example, that you were on the ambulance on a weekend night, you’d make sure you were well fed and watered before you go into work,” he says. “We were normally very well. received wherever we went. Especially on the ambulance – anywhere we went people knew we were there to help them. [But] as Nobby Clarke used to say, ‘If your budgie doesn’t sing, call the fire brigade’. And sometimes it seemed like that.”

Rory’s collection of memorabilia.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

For Rory, what brought him into work every day was the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of Dublin’s citizens. “We went out when people were at their lowest, and I mean utter lowest,” he explains. “Their house could be burning down around them or their father may have died, and we would arrive. We tried to make things better. It’s not always possible – sometimes you have to do a bit of damage in a house to put out the fire, but we tried to leave the people and structure in a better shape than [when] we found it. That’s what we’re there for really.”

Rory’s desire to help people in wretched circumstances would take him beyond Ireland’s borders. In 1986, while he was based in Phibsborough, the Chernobyl disaster shook the world. On April 26th the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine was destroyed, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere, with the fallout spreading across western USSR and Europe. Thirty-one deaths have been directly attributed to the disaster, alongside deformities and defects in children born in Ukraine and Belarus in the years after the explosion.

“Radiation knows no territorial boundaries, it doesn’t apply for an entry or an exit visa, it travels wherever the winds take it,” said Adi Roche, who founded Chernobyl Children International. “At 1.23 am on 26th April 1986 a silent war was declared against the innocent peoples of Belarus, Western Russia and Northern Ukraine. A war in which they could not see the enemy, a war in which they could send no standing army, a war in which there was no weapon, no antidote, no safe haven, no emergency exit. Why? Because the enemy was invisible, the enemy was radiation.” Many of those children wound up in orphanages, grim facilities that provided a roof over their heads and regular meals, but precious little else in the way of a normal life. Stirred by their predicament, Rory joined convoys travelling 1,500 miles from Ireland to Belarus by ground, carrying much-needed medical and humanitarian supplies for the recovery efforts.

“A lot of firefighters died, a lot of children died, and being a father and a firefighter, it tugged at the [heart] strings. So when I had a chance at getting involved I did,” says Rory. His first trip over was in 1996 and by chance he met his future wife Marion the following year, travelling as part of the same convoy. Everything fell into place and their first wedding was at a Russian Orthodox Church on May 4th 2003, but they discovered the marriage wasn’t legal back home. After a four-year wait they were married again in Wales on May 5th 2007. As Marion describes it, “We tried to get as close as we could. So we’re married ten and 14 years!”

Rory and Marion made the trek to Belarus twice a year for 12 years in total, working with the manual team building playgrounds, putting roofs on portacabins, painting wards, renovating shower facilities and whatever else needed to be done. “You carried the kids out to the open air, you put them on swings and roundabouts and you’d amuse [them] for a couple hours during the day. It was very depressing when you’d leave the orphanage because you’d feel very guilty leaving the kids behind,” he recalls. Alongside supplies of medicine, furniture, clothes, shoes and much more, the teams also brought gifts for the children in those institutions – simple items like balloons or rugby jerseys that nonetheless made their day. “To see their faces – you’d give them a jersey and they knew it was theirs to keep, because they were used to being handed gear and it being taken from them,” Rory adds.

Rory also made contact with the fire service in Belarus, an under-resourced organisation that did the best job with what it had. On his first trip he brought over a retired hydraulic cutting tool, which was received with great enthusiasm. As luck would have it, that was placed on a tender with the call sign 32 – Rory spent a lot of time on 3-2 based in Phibsborough. That kickstarted a relationship that would last for years, with the Dubliners bringing a gift of equipment each time, including incubators, infusion pumps and even a laparoscopic instrument for keyhole surgeries. Introductions were made with the Chief Fire Officer, they were brought on tours of the fire brigade training college and their museum, and they were made a gift of Russian Fire Brigade china, now on display in the Dublin Fire Brigade museum at the training centre in Marino. Rory’s colleagues in DFB were instrumental in getting them across the continent every year. Alongside an annual bucket collection on O’Connell Street, the Workshop fitted a fire brigade van with a bed, cooker, fridge and portaloo purchased by Rory and Marion, and insured the pair to drive it. “The Chief Fire Officer at the time was great,” he adds. “He couldn’t do enough charity-wise. ‘What do you need Rory?’ he’d say.”

THE QUIET LIFE

The last few years have by no means been easy for Rory and Marion. Illness forced him out of the job he loved in 2009, having been diagnosed with lung cancer for the first time a year earlier – less than a year after he and Marion were married in Wales. Alongside a back operation and pneumonia he suffered a stroke in 2016, leaving him with short-term memory issues. To make matters worse, doctors found cancer in his other lung while undergoing tests. A tough situation that’s unimaginable unless you’ve gone through it, it’s clear that the same black humour that many firefighters use as a coping mechanism helped him through some difficult times – he recalls asking a surgeon during his first bout of cancer to save ‘a bit of meat for the cat’.

“It’s not a death sentence, it’s just a word. And if you can hang onto that it makes it a bit easier to deal with,” he says. “And it’s not easy to deal with because you don’t know if you’re going to survive, you don’t know if you do survive what way you’re going to be after it. But we got through it. We got through it together.”

It’s also clear that his career as a firefighter means a great deal to him. A shelf above his stairs (Marion’s handiwork) is home to a collection of memorabilia including helmets, patches and medals, a selection of statues received on his retirement takes pride of place along the fireplace, while two detailed and colourful statues of firefighters, souvenirs from Belarus, stand on duty in the back garden. There’s also a more unusual item – half of a good-sized rock that was thrown through the window of his ambulance as he and Leslie Crow travelled along the Navan Road one day, narrowly missing his ear.

Rory keeps in touch with old colleagues too – he joined the Retired Members Association last year, pops into Phibsborough fire station every few months for a visit, helps Paul Hand in the museum every Thursday, and is one of several veterans of No. 3 known as the ROMEOS – Retired Old Men Eating Out – who meet up every few months for dinner and a catch-up. These are friendships cemented over decades, between people who often placed their lives in one another’s hands.

“Nobby Clarke, the Crow [Leslie Crow] – Leslie was one of the best firefighters I ever worked with. I trained as well with Paul Hand, the curator of the museum in the OBI. He is one of the hardest working firefighters I’ve ever met in my life, he really is,” Rory tells me. “You’re in situations where your life could literally be hanging on your friendship with somebody else. It’s very much a second family. It was never just a job. You go into it [at the beginning] and it’s just a job, but once you’re there a while it’s a heck of a lot more – it’s a way of life.”

On parade

We look back at the annual FESSEF parade in Dublin city last September.

The annual Frontline and Emergency and Security Services Éire Forum (FESSEF) parade took to Dublin city’s streets once more last September, with around 1,000 emergency services personnel marching from Parnell Square to the grounds of Trinity College. A fantastic display of uniformed personnel, marching bands and gleaming machinery, the procession attracted large crowds of admirers along the parade route, led once more by members of An Garda Síochána on motorbikes and bicycles and passing underneath the national flag held aloft by two DFB appliances.

The marchers included Irish Army veterans, members of the Irish Prison Service, Dublin Fire Brigade (including the Pipe Band), An Garda Síochána, the National Ambulance Service, the Civil Defence, the RNLI, Order of Malta and more. “Frontline workers are out there to serve the public and that’s what we do as an organisation – always have and always will – and that’s what all the other services do as well. Days like this are always very positive because it creates more interagency activity and cooperation and it fosters one-to-one relationships when required,” Garda Chief Superintendent Kevin Gralton said at the launch of the event.

The parade concluded at Trinity College Dublin where a static showcase had been underway since earlier that morning. Various demonstrations were on view for the public milling around, including CPR, bomb disarmament, highline rescues and first aid. “It went really well and it’s building up,” explains DFB Third Officer John Keogh. “It’s an opportunity for the emergency services to be seen by the public all in the one area – the police, fire, ambulance, all of the volunteers who you are relying on to come together and help out in times of emergency. It’s a good showcase for the voluntary organisations and the emergency services to come together. To see us in a more social aspect is a big advantage and the kids get quite a kick out of it.”

There are other benefits for DFB and its colleagues in emergency response, including the chance to meet people and develop relationships, which could prove advantageous in the event of an incident. “The more and more that you meet these people, when it comes to a real event you know that you might recognise a face or you might know them by name,” T/O Keogh explains. He also makes the point that, as a national organisation celebrating national emergency services, the possibility of moving the annual parade outside Dublin on occasion should be considered. “Let the people in Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny, Killarney etc. have the parade down through their town to show what the emergency services are doing,” he adds. “There can be too much focus on Dublin at times – it would be nice to see it expand out around the country.”

DFB’s colour party. Photos courtesy Trevor Hunt and John Keogh

ORGANISATION

The organisation of DFB’s involvement each year is no simple matter, with myriad tasks ranging from organising the flags to recruiting the colour party. Without volunteers, T/O Keogh notes, it simply wouldn’t happen. Twelve off-duty firefighters gave up their free time to march with each of the station flags, along with the Pipe Band and Dublin Fire Brigade flags; Ken Reynolds and Brian Campion volunteered to spend the day manning DFB’s presence in Trinity College, while Ger Corcoran and Declan Rice, C watch No 3, organised the colour party. The four appliances there on the day were all operational, ready to leave the parade in the event of an emergency. “We were quite prepared in the middle of the route if they had to drive off left or right and go to an incident,” says T/O Keogh. “It would show the 24/7 operation that DFB provides. The 999 ethos is that whether you’re having your dinner or you’re in a parade, if you have to go to an incident you just drop everything – the emergency event takes precedence.”

In 2017, FESSEF organisers added an extra day to the calendar of events, with a concert held at the Pro-Cathedral the evening before the parade. Featuring the musical talents of the Dublin Fire Brigade and National Ambulance Service Pipe Bands, as well as the Garda Band, tribute was paid to colleagues who lost their lives in the line of duty, including the crew of Coast Guard Rescue 116 and Garda Tony Golden. The Midlands Prison choir leant their voices to the evening, as did a section of RTÉ’s Philharmonic choir. Ticket sales from the event raised funds for Bumbleance, the RLNI charities, and O.N.E. (ex-service personnel). From DFB’s perspective, the Pipe Band put hours of practice into their performance, working with the National Ambulance Service Pipe Band to ensure both were playing at the same pitch, alongside several practice sessions with the Garda Band on timings. The DFB Pipe Band’s last collaboration with the NAS was playing with Andri Rae in the 3Arena; this was the first time the three principal response agencies in Dublin played as one.

“The concert on the Friday night was a huge success,” T/O Keogh explains. “By all accounts, from the people who were at it and paid their money, the show was a spectacle for them and spectacular in so many ways. Hopefully that will continue to build up over the years and get better and better.”

A lens on life: Greg Matthews

Retired Station Officer Greg Matthews spoke about his career in Dublin Fire Brigade and his passion for street photography.

Retired Station Officer Greg Matthews has undoubtedly led an interesting and varied life. Born in 1961, the middle child in a family of five, he grew up in Ballyfermot and followed a path as a motor mechanic before pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter. Now that he’s retired, he spends his time pursuing several hobbies, among them street photography.

“The fire brigade was something that I had always longed to get into, something I thought would be a great job to do,” he explains. Greg was one of 42 firefighters in Class 1/1985, the first class to experience training in the then brand-new O’Brien Training Institute in Marino, which he describes as a ‘new dawn’ for Dublin Fire Brigade. Over the following 25 years he would work in every fire station across the job on A, B and C watch, and earn promotion first to sub officer and then station officer, the latter something he wanted to achieve since his first day. “To become a station officer was my ultimate goal – I didn’t really bother going for promotion after that point,” he explains with a laugh. “I was happy to reach that point.”

Greg Matthews

As we chat, Greg reminisces about a fulfilling career that encompassed a variety of strands. He recalls working in the ISO section at a time when DFB was striving to achieve the quality mark for its fire and ambulance services (something that had never been achieved before); earning a Guinness World Record as part of the team that beat the Germans’ distance in pushing a pump for 24 hours; and coming full circle as he returned to the OBI to mould several classes of recruits (he was also chosen as one of the brigade’s first swiftwater rescue instructors, a clear source of pride). “I completed two batches of recruit training, back-to-back, which is very difficult to do as an instructor. Training recruits is probably one of the most challenging things you can do but it is also one of the most rewarding – you are given seven guys fresh in off the street and you have to turn them into firefighters six months later,” he says. “It’s great to see recruits who I trained are now sub officers and station officers and they’re training recruits. I get a great kick out of that. There can’t be anything better than to think ‘There’s a guy that I trained and he’s reached a very high standard’.”

NEW ADVENTURES

After a busy career, Greg retired from DFB in 2010 on medical grounds, having developed a problem with one of his hips from running marathons. At the time, he explains, he was relatively happy to leave, feeling that he had made a significant contribution to the brigade over those years and feeling ready to explore other avenues of interest with his newfound free time. His first port of call was yachting and he earned a licence as a day skipper following a number of sailing courses. Next up – photography.

It was something that had lingered in his mind since he was a child – his father would bring home The Irish Press and Greg would comb the pages examining every detail of renowned photographer Austin Finn’s black and white photos of ordinary Dubliners going about their daily lives, even cutting them out for inclusion in a treasured scrapbook. Over the proceeding decades Greg would take photos now and then – perhaps on holiday – and people would comment on how they were a cut above the norm. Curious as to what separated his creations from others, he decided to do a photography course with Dublin Camera Club (where he met his partner Trudy). Though he struggled with the technical side of photography – exposition, shutter speed, focus and more – it gave him the freedom to create better images and bring his mind’s eye to life. Clearly he’s got a flair for it, having been named Irish Street Photographer of the Year in 2015 (as well as winning Street Photograph of the Year), with an exhibition of his photos held in Filmbase in Temple Bar that same year in memory of his late father. His increasing profile has also resulted in numerous invitations to speak at camera clubs around the country, sharing the lessons he has learned behind the camera and on the streets.

Shot for the most part in black and white, Greg’s photos tell a story, capturing intimate moments in time that might otherwise go unnoticed – a family enjoying a picnic on the beach in Bray, an elderly couple making their way over Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge, a man cycling through Glasnevin Cemetery. His style is quite artistic with many of his photos reminiscent of a painting; candid images of ordinary life inspired not only by Austin Finn but also Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered a master of street photography. Greg is reluctant to pigeonhole his work into any one category; instead he follows a few simple rules that guide the sights on his lens.

“Though I call myself a street photographer, it’s very hard to define what street photography is. For me, my photography is capturing people going about their daily lives,” he explains. “The person doesn’t know that their photograph is being taken. There has to be some point of interest in the image, there has to be something happening. A lot of people… they just think it’s photographs of people walking on the street and for me it’s not that.” Greg’s photos are bolstered by the fact that his subjects are unaware they are being photographed, displaying real emotions rather than a hastily assembled smile. A lot of his shooting is done from the hip, pointing and clicking the shutter through a café window or while stopped in the middle of a footpath. In the first few years the loud click from his Canon 5D Mark II would give the game away, so he took to coughing while he pressed the shutter to mask the sound, or would wait until a bus passed by on the road. He eventually opted for a Fuji X-T1, a much quieter, more discreet option that allows him to blend in a bit better with the crowds.

“As soon as you hit the shutter they look and they know – the moment is lost,” he says. “A lot of the time when I’m out doing my street photography I try to blend in and look like a tourist. If I’m walking down Moore Street and the dealers are looking at me I just look back at them. I find if you’re trying to be too discreet people are wondering what you’re at.”

Patience is the name of the game for Greg, who spends hours on the streets of Dublin observing life as it passes by and waiting for the right shot to enter his frame. Take Temple Bar Lady, his award-winning photo of a solitary woman walking along an empty laneway in Temple Bar. Having found the location, Greg repeatedly returned in search of the perfect canvas free from crowds, delivery vans or dustbins awaiting collection. A bit of luck, too, has its role to play from time to time. Having lined up a candid shot of one of Dublin’s characters, Greg surreptitiously pressed the shutter just as the man yawned. The result is a fantastic image of life’s mundanity – the ‘open’ sign in the background complementing the open-mouthed focus. “You still have to be there to get it,” he adds.

Greg’s photo of Martin McGuinness

And then there’s the ability to react to your surroundings, to recognise the potential for a fantastic shot and to take it without missing the moment. One of those moments arrived at Greg’s feet (literally) in 2016, during one of the 1916 commemorative events in Dublin’s Merrion Square. Hearing a commotion behind him, Greg turned to see Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in attendance, surrounded by crowds taking photos. With Adams out of reach and McGuinness close by, Greg quickly dropped to his feet and pointed the camera towards the sky. When McGuinness passed away in January 2017 the resultant shot went viral – from a profile picture for Sinn Féín’s Mary Lou McDonald on Facebook to being blown up and displayed at McGuinness’ month’s mind in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“I knew the shot I wanted to get when I saw him. If I had kept it at eye level you would see hundreds of people behind him,” says Greg. “It’s obviously one of those photographs I’m proud of because it has become iconic. It’s a real moment in time photograph. That’s the way I think of it.”

I ask Greg about what draws him to the streets with his camera in hand, what motivates him to seek out the candid moments that have become his signature, to stake out a location for hours in search of the perfect shot. “When I’m out taking photographs I can get lost in my own little world, I don’t think of anything else,” he says. “I think that’s what I enjoy about it. I’m in a different world when I’m taking photographs – the normal world disappears and I’m in a bit of a dreamlike state. All that I can think of is the camera, the photograph and the end result.”

Before I leave, our conversation turns once more to the time he spent with Dublin Fire Brigade – the fact that he treasures those years evident by the smile on his face and the pride in his tone. Greg singles out the comradeship in the job as one of the highlights, getting to know the individuals on your crew and how best to work with them.

“I’ve had a brilliant and varied career in DFB,” he adds. “For me, it was all about being in the right place at the right time and never refusing to take up any role that was offered to me. There was never a day that I didn’t look forward to going in.”

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.”

Station profile: C watch No 5

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

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

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

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

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

The appliance at No 5

Emergency medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

District Officer Joe Keena

Aid in Africa

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

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

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

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

Renovation complete

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

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

Transforming lives: Operation Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Transformation

Dave Connolly and Stephen Howard. Images courtesy RTE.

Looking back

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

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

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

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

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.