Category - Station Profiles

Station profile: B watch Donnybrook

The home of hazmat response for Dublin Fire Brigade, Conor Forrest took a trip to B watch Donnybrook, headed by S/O James Bissett.

The risk factors faced by the crews of Donnybrook fire station are quite varied, thanks to their location in the heart of Dublin’s southside. Clonskeagh Hospital and The Royal Hospital Donnybrook lie to the west, the RDS to the northeast and UCD due south. Alongside high-rise buildings in nearby Ballsbridge and new apartment blocks in Dún Laoghaire, there’s also the sea to contend with a little more than 2km away. And then there’s the Aviva Stadium, the Covanta Plant in Poolbeg, the nightclub hub of Harcourt Street, and a wide range of private and nursing home accommodation scattered throughout the district. All-in-all, an interesting mix.

During my recent trip to No 1, Station Officer James Bissett was on duty – the last time we met was just before Dublin GAA won the first of what would become a treble of All-Ireland Championship triumphs. S/O Bissett (a former Dublin footballer himself) moved from North Strand to Donnybrook two years ago and is celebrating his 30th year in the job this year. S/O Bissett adds the Luas and the DART to Donnybrook’s considerable list of responsibilities and highlights the station’s expertise in hazardous substance response. Once a call comes through, a special appliance is dispatched from the station carrying a variety of hazmat response gear including a decontamination tent, a sealed hazmat suit, and additional oxygen tanks in the event of an extended delay.

“We respond to any chemical incident – the crew are all trained in all aspects of hazardous substances and decontamination,” S/O Bissett explains. The first step is identifying the chemical involved, via the control room or through an on-scene examination. Once they have a name or code, it’s a matter of double checking the required response parameters contained in a reference book or laptop – whether the chemical is corrosive, poisonous or flammable, which firefighting medium should be used, or whether the immediate area should be evacuated – among other concerns.

“The areas we would cordon off would depend on wind direction. When we’re going to a chemical incident we’re looking at the wind direction – the way we approach it is uphill, upwind. It could be a vapour, it could be airborne, it could be a liquid,” S/O Bissett tells me. “Arriving on-scene, the first thing you have to do is identify the substance, then stand back and say ‘what does this substance do, how do we deal with it properly?’ It’s about getting all of that information and making a plan as to what you’re going to do.” But hazmat response doesn’t just concern itself with the chemical – crews who have already arrived on-scene might have been exposed without the necessary protective gear.

“Local management is very important when you get there,” he adds. “The problem is that when you get there the people that are involved in it may not be wearing any respiratory protection and they’re caught, and you may have to go and do a snatch rescue. [Then] the decontamination unit comes into play. It could be mass decontamination depending on where it is and how many people have been affected. Every incident is different.”

The Hazmat Support Unit.

AGE AND INEXPERIENCE

Understandably, given the risky nature of responding to chemical incidents, training is a key part of the job for those stationed at No 1. That’s augmented by words of wisdom between the senior and junior men; the former willing to share what they’ve learned over decades of work. Ex-Defence Forces soldier Ben Wedick is the station’s most senior man on B watch, a 20-year veteran of Dublin Fire Brigade. Following two years in Townsend Street at the beginning of his career, he transferred to Donnybrook and has been here ever since. Five years into his career he began driving, starting with the old white ambulance which you could drive then with an ordinary car licence. Enjoying it, he progressed to driving the motors, getting to know the area quite well in the intervening years. Ben explains that he’s happy to pass on his own knowledge as he remembers what it was like to start out in the job.

“I began here as a junior man for about five or six years – it was quite a senior crew here which I learned my trade from. You just watch and you listen instead of jumping in and saying things. It was one of the better moves of my career. Since then a lot of junior guys have passed through here, and I hope I have instilled a bit of my knowledge into them. I’ve worked with a lot of good officers such as Stephen Brady, the ex-Chief Fire Officer – he was my S/O when I came here first,” he says, adding that the banter is what he enjoys most about the job, although once the bell goes that all changes.

“When we have to go out the gates the banter stops. We’re as professional as any guys I’ve ever worked with,” he stresses. “Everybody brings their little bits and pieces to the role. Tom is an ex-nursing student, I’m an ex-military man but I’m also an electrician. A lot of the lads are well clued-in with life skills that they bring to the fireground whenever we have to.” Ben also mentions that there’s a great community spirit in No. 1, aided by the fact that the crew all enjoy playing sport, from five-a-side matches against Townsend Street after the night shift to an occasional game of golf, not to mention an annual trip away together in summer or at Christmas. “I’m the oldest firefighter and it makes me feel young having young [people] like Tom in his mid-20s coming in. Because I never grew up myself!” he says with a smile.

Crew members Tommy Byrne and Ben Wedick.

TEAMWORK

‘Tom’ is Tommy Byrne, relatively fresh from the OBI having graduated with Class 1/2017. Tommy’s background is in nursing, having studied the subject for three years in college before the chance to join DFB came up, something he believes gave him an advantage when he applied last year. “I always had an idea that I wanted the medical side of things, helping people in any way I can. I went with nursing and I was going into my final year when this came up. I went for it not knowing if it would go my way or not, but at least it would be experience for the next time it came around – I would be well prepared. Things luckily went my way and I ended up getting in, but it meant I had to put the nursing degree on hold,” he explains. Tommy is barely six months into his new job, by now part and parcel of the crew on B watch having been welcomed into the fold from the beginning – older crew members like Ben have taken him under their wing, showing him the ropes. Though he hasn’t attended any major incidents as of yet, he has very much experienced the differences between a simulated scenario in the OBI and the real thing.

“The ones I have been at, they are a lot different than [the exercises in] training. But that’s the job, you came in, you did all the training for that, and you’re with colleagues who have years of experience in dealing with this,” he says. “All you do is if you’re not sure, look to them, and they’ll point you in the right direction and make sure you’re doing the right thing. You adapt, you bring in whatever skills you have – you’re part of a team that all have different skills, different qualities and you come together and make the situation work.”

The benefits of working as part of a cohesive team are something that Joe Brennan, another of the station’s long-serving crew members (now in his 11th year in Donnybrook), can attest to. A second-generation firefighter following in the footsteps of his father Brian, who was stationed in Dolphin’s Barn for 30 years, Joe played hockey at an international level both before he joined the job and in his early years. These days he’s still involved in the sport as assistant coach to the Irish women’s team, something he tells me wouldn’t be possible without the support of his colleagues. “Both the guys I work with and management are really supportive of me,” he explains. “Even now I’m involved as the assistant coach for the Irish women’s team and they’re still so supportive in helping me try and represent the fire brigade.”

Joe’s role is one of the most important in any station, having taken over the running of the mess almost a year ago. When I arrive he’s in the middle of preparing for lunchtime, the extractor fan running at full speed, hobs burning brightly, and food moving through a conveyor belt of efficiency from preparation boards to storage plates.

“My dynamic in work has changed a little bit now because I’ve taken over the mess for the last year,” he says while manhandling a large frying pan. “I enjoy coming out of my comfort zone, being under pressure. I love meeting people in work, I love the characters in work – that’s what makes the job, the characters. The unpredictability of what’s going to happen in the job is great, dealing with the public, helping people. I love coming into work – there’s a great sense of camaraderie in this station.”

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.”