Working on the frontline

We caught up with Robin Blandford, founder of Howth-based software company D4H Technologies, which provides frontline emergency management solutions. 

Robin Blandford leads an interesting life. One day could see him responding to a maritime emergency as part of his work with the Coast Guard in Howth; the next, a flight over a remote oil and gas site in Alaska. It’s all part and parcel of his work as the founder of D4H Technologies, based in the Bailey Lighthouse in Howth, a software firm that helps emergency teams across the globe to ensure they are ready for whatever comes next. Though D4H works with some organisations in Europe, the vast majority of its clients are based in North America, divided between the USA and Canada.


Blandford’s background is in the Irish Coast Guard, through which he has risen over the years to become acting deputy officer in charge of North Dublin. His membership of the Scouts and his role as a scout leader had engendered an interest in mountaineering, followed by first aid. Though he originally looked at joining a mountain rescue team, he instead opted to join the Coast Guard in Howth. Eight years ago he built a basic database programme to assist Coast Guard operations at the station level, to analyse incidents, help manage training schedules, the calendar, and other day-to-day tasks. “That just grew and grew and eight years later we have a range of products that are delivered to 16 countries,” he explains.

Their software, Blandford notes, is all web-based and focuses on readiness, making sure that equipment is ready to respond, making sure that people are trained and experienced, ensuring that incidents are being analysed and creating a feedback loop to improve training and readiness. That readiness software is used in every large scale disaster, says Blandford, including the salvage of the Costa Concordia cruise ship which wrecked off the Italian coast in January 2012.

“We have 16 countries where we have organisations or governments using the software. It’s mainly North America, and that is split about 50-50 between Canada and the US,” he says. “They’re slightly different markets. Canada is a little bit more in the wilderness side – search and rescue or remote oil and gas sites. The US tends to be more hazardous material response, HAZMAT chemical response. [We work] more through fire departments, emergency management agencies etc.”

In Ireland, however, they have yet to make their mark. At the moment the only work the firm does here involves search and rescue between Irish Water Safety, the Irish Coast Guard and several mountain rescue teams. “It’s very much volunteer stuff in Ireland – there’s just not the market,” he explains. “DFB is the only big organisation that would be that applicable to us. We think there might be some military interest, but for us there’s a huge investment to do that for a very small market.

We’re totally focused on North America where we jump from county to county, and they each have a DFB – it’s much, much bigger.”

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New ties

Generating new business is the tricky part – D4H hasn’t yet reached the point where their name is universally known within the market, and where fire departments or other emergency teams immediately gravitate towards their solutions. Blandford describes their approach as two-pronged: spears and nets.

Robin Blandford

“Your spears involve initial targeting – we know if it’s an emergency management agency, some county or state in the US, we can find out the name of the emergency manager who’s in charge. We directly target that person through meeting them at conferences, phone calls, emails…quite a targeted approach,” he explains. “The [opposite] side of it is the marketing. The biggest companies in the world will still target their sales.”

Blandford also notes that his background within the field is of huge help when it comes to speaking his clients’ language. “I’m always on customer sites or conferences. Every city I go to I end up riding in a fire tender or on a boat in the bay or whatever. Because they know you’ve got all the certs and you’ve got all your tickets for everything in order, you get invited out – it makes a massive difference.”

Moving forward

It’s clear that Blandford relishes every day of his work, and the enjoyment shines through in his voice and in his words. “You could be six months dealing with [a client] on the phone, or maybe they’ve been a customer for a year. And then sometimes you get flown up in a charter plan to some remote oil and gas site and you actually see – in the middle of nowhere in the world – that there’s a team of 50-100 firefighters using your software daily,” he says. “Or you hear of it being used – common lingo like you’d say ‘hoover that up’ or ‘Google that’. You hear phrases like ‘have you made sure you’ve added that to D4H’ – the word D4H gets thrown into conversation.”

The firm is on a massive growth trajectory now, with plenty of interesting projects on the go. County deals in the US are turning into statewide deals, for example, with ten fire departments coming on board at once. Exciting times are undoubtedly ahead for the small firm based in a lighthouse in Howth.

First on the scene

First aid

Firecall editor Conor Forrest recently took part in day one of the three-day Occupational First Aid (OFA) course at the O’Brien Training Institute, learning more than he had expected.

It’s not an entirely uncommon scenario. An ordinary member of the public is out walking through the city when they see a man collapsing to the ground, complaining of chest pain and discomfort along with shortness of breath. They might panic, unsure of what to do, apart from calling the emergency services. Or, if they have been instructed in how to give first aid, they could make the difference between life and death, stabilising the patient before the ambulance arrives.

Having been encouraged by a number of people over the past few months to undertake a first aid course, in the event anything might happen at Firecall HQ, I arrived bright and early at the OBI on a sunny morning last June alongside six other trainees, all of whom seemed to work in one of the city’s public libraries.

My first introduction to this new and nervousness-inducing world was courtesy of our instructor for the day, Hugh Keeley, who joined DFB in 1997 and currently serves on C watch in Donnybrook. Despite having studied biology to the Leaving Cert (not by choice), I wondered how I would manage to take in the amount of technical terms and medical information that I was sure would be fired my way throughout the day. I needn’t have worried.

Comprising a mix of practical and easily digestible information on the intricacies of patient assessment, respiratory emergencies and cardiac first response, the course was broken down in a manner that us ordinary folk on the street could understand without much difficulty. Hugh was full of interesting information and anecdotes throughout the day, including the possibility of using a crisp bag to stop air sucking in and to allow blood to drain out following a stab wound to the ribs or lungs, albeit in the absence of a more conventional medical solution.

First up was an introduction to the world of the first aider, from the responsibility of those practicing first aid to regulations and legislation, and we were warned about acting negligently and the need to secure a scene before you begin your work, a lesson which is undoubtedly part and parcel of everyday life in DFB, but may be less than second nature to us civilians. Next up was what we had all been waiting for, the practical demonstrations – checking for a response, carrying out primary and secondary surveys, hauling our makeshift patients into the recovery position, and best practice when dealing with a patient suffering from spinal injuries, among others.

Sobering lessons

Perhaps one of the more striking lessons learned that day was about fibrillation, and the actual use of the defibrillator. From the point of view of the general public, it’s probably fair to say that the defibrillator is seen as a tool to fix all manner of problems. One of the attendees (naming no names) was particularly shocked by the revelation that the heart itself is not restarted by the defibrillator; the defibrillator stops ventricular fibrillation which is a useless quivering of the heart that results in no output – blame Hollywood for that misconception.

First aid

The course includes both theoretical and practical aspects

Speaking to me afterwards, Hugh was very vocal on the need for people on the street with first aider skills, as they provide a vital stopgap while the emergency services are en route. “They are vital. They are the first three links in the chain of survival, and what we do adds to what they have done already. If they’ve got stuck in and they know first aid and they’re able to do as much as they can for the sick, ill or injured person before we arrive, it makes a massive difference to the outcome of the health and wellbeing of the patient. If nobody does anything for the patient or if they’re just left lying on the ground, when we arrive we have a hard job to make things right again,” he states. “The first aider is vital and it’s very important that [they are] in the workplace, in schools and community centres etc. And that they have the equipment – ideally, if the budget will run to it, if there’s a defibrillator in the centre or the school or the workplace, the first aider can start using that long before we even get there, and it might make the difference between life or death.”

As for the course itself, Hugh notes that anybody can do it, with just a few simple prerequisites. “You don’t need anything apart from an enthusiasm and a willingness to learn,” he adds. “So long as you come with the right attitude then we can show you all of the skills over the three days, and you’ll learn a lot.”

While the librarians continued their studies for another two days, my fi rst day was also unfortunately my last. However, it’s fair to say that in that day I learned more about first aid and life saving techniques than I have in my entire life, from the correct way to do CPR to the use of aspirin in cardiac cases. I hope to return some day in the not so distant future to complete the full three-day course and receive my certificate as a qualified first aider – from what I’ve seen and learned, it could be worth its weight in gold.


The portable defibrillator was the brainchild of Professor James ‘Frank’ Pantridge, a doctor and cardiologist who was awarded the British Military Cross for his role in defending Singapore from the Japanese during World War II, and later became a prisoner-of-war. Appointed as a cardiac consultant to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast in 1950, Pantridge introduced cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with his colleague Dr John Geddes by 1957. Recognising that thousands of deaths were occurring due to ventricular defibrillation, with many taking place in the first hour, Pantridge developed a portable defibrillator along with Geddes and a technician at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Alfred Mawhinney.

Retired Members: Damien Fynes

From planting the seed for Firecall to entertaining Russian firefighters after the cold war, retired D/O Damien Fynes recounts an interesting and eventful life.

One might say that Damien Fynes has had both a fortunate and interesting life. Take an incident that happened before he ever joined the fire brigade. Back in 1974 his wife Ann worked in the GPO, and Damien would pick her up and stroll down Talbot Street to catch the bus. On May 17th 1974 the buses were on strike. Damien had ten shillings in his pocket and on a whim, instead of making for Talbot Street, they went for a drink in a pub on North Earl Street. Not long after they sat down, one of three bombs detonated on Talbot Street near the junction with Lower Gardiner Street, killing twelve people immediately, in an event that would become known as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

A life recalled

Damien joined DFB later that year and was posted to B watch Dorset Street for two years alongside Martin O’Brien, who he describes as one of the finest firefighters he ever worked with. It was during these initial years that he and Martin decided to launch a publication which started off as Brigade Call, eventually morphing into the magazine in your hands today. Having moved to Buckingham Street when Dorset Street closed, Damien began to move up through the ranks, first securing promotion to sub officer on B watch and then D watch, where he would remain for the best part of his career. Further promotions resulted in a move to Dún Laoghaire as station officer on D watch, and he retired from No 3 having served as a D/O on D and then C watch.

“Buckingham Street had an atmosphere that was incredible, really close,” he recalls. “When we went in there were stables, and they even had an open water storage tank in the yard that was made up during the war. We went on a fire call from Buckingham Street [one day], and when we came back they had a turntable ladder outside the door – the chimney had gone on fire in the station while we were out, and they had to turn out Tara Street!”

In early 1978, just after his return to the job following an ankle break, he was among those who responded to a fire at Burgerland on O’Connell Street. A number of children were reported to be trapped in a crèche on the top floor – Damien and several other firefighters, including sub officer Fergus Ingram, went in to rescue them, though they had to turn back due to the intense heat (later it emerged that the children had been removed safely from the burning building). During the mop up operation, while he was removing a neon sign with Tommy Giffney, the sign swung loose and spun Damien’s ladder. Falling heavily on the ground, he lost all sensation in his legs, and was rushed to Jervis Street.

Although he left the hospital later than evening on foot to catch a bus to Raheny, Damien later discovered, after a trip to climb the Nine Dragons in Hong Kong, raising funds for DEBRA Ireland with the assistance of DFB many years later, that the accident had resulted in several crushed discs in his back. Luckily a five hour operation proved successful and, despite an offer of early retirement, Damien returned to work, keen to get back to the job he loved.

That attitude was prevalent throughout his career – he enjoyed the varied life in Dublin Fire Brigade and all that came with it. “It’s all about being personable, how you deal with people,” he says. “When I worked on the ambulance, you could always get the homeless people on your side by getting them to sing a song; you’d have them roaring singing by the time you reach Jervis Street or one of the other hospitals. Things seemed to be more harmless then.”

It was also that personable attitude that resulted in an invitation to France on behalf of the French Fire Brigade. While he was serving in No 3 as a D/O, there was a knock at the door one day from a French firefighter and his wife. Having invited the visitors in for coffee, Damien then fired up the D/O’s car and brought them on a mini-tour of the city. Three weeks later Damien, alongside two other firefighters, received an invitation to France to take part in an event celebrating the French fire service. Welcomed as VIPs, they took part in a line up inspected by the president of the French fire brigade, the only non- French personnel given that honour.

Founding fathers

Alongside Brigade Call, as the Sports and Social Club publication was first known, Damien was also a founding member of another DFB institution – the Pipe Band, the result of a simple conversation with John McBride, sparked from marching behind a pipe band in the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade. “Did you ever get an idea that just lights you up, and you become so enthused with it that you’re thinking about it all of the time? That’s what happened there,” he says.

Getting the band up and running was no mean feat, particularly during the 1980s – set up costs were estimated at £40,000. Despite initial difficulties, a plan was enacted which involved a loan from the sports and social club, paid back through the weekly subscriptions of members, the same model still in use today. A committee was elected, with Damien taking the role of chairperson, and Joe Brennan acting as secretary. Joe, who later retired as a D/O in Finglas, was one of the driving forces behind the band’s success, alongside Barney Mulhall, Tony Daly (now deceased) and Gerry Aldwell.

Their first major event, however, almost ended in disaster. Joe Brennan was approached about a gig in the National Concert Hall, with a brochure and performers to be funded through advertising organised by an external company. Two weeks beforehand, they got a call to say that the deal was off. Damien was faced with paying Damien leading of the group, and with no mobile phones the phone was usually brought to the table. “By the end of the week these Russians thought I owned the city because ‘Damien, phone call for you’ – everybody knew me!” he explains.

Damien Fynes

Following the parade on St. Patrick’s Day, the group returned to Wynns Hotel where the visiting firefighters were staying, and Damien was summoned upstairs to attend to an urgent matter with one of the generals, bringing Peter Barriscale along with him for support. Both were brought to the general’s room and told to sit on the bed. Perhaps understandably uneasy and confused, they watched as the door suddenly burst open and a dancing Russian entered playing the accordion with great gusto, followed by the general in full dress uniform. It transpired that the generals had experienced such a great time, they wanted to present Damien with the Russian flag, a huge honour he was assured.

Their positive experience also meant that an invitation to Russia was extended to the band, and a group set off for Moscow from Shannon in May. Met at the airport by a Colonel from the Ministry of the Interior, they made an instant impression on several older women cleaning in the airport, who fled as the DFB contingent walked through. Confused, they asked what was going on. The colonel replied, saying “the last time they saw uniforms like yours, it was the Germans.”

During their tour around Moscow and its environs the DFB group were treated as the most important of VIPs, aided by the presence of General Rubtsov, a national hero – wined and dined at the opulent Chudov Monastery, shown around the Russian cosmonaut training centre, brought the transport costs of the Garda Band who had been hired to perform, and for the hall itself. The committee went into action. Tickets were drawn down and sold by members and the brochure was printed on a Communist Party print press, arranged by Tony Daly, who also took on the role as MC in the concert hall. In total, the band made £800 profit. Refusing to touch that money, he explains that he spent around two months’ worth of mortgage payments in buying drinks for those who helped make the night happen. “Without Ann’s involvement or without me putting my house on the line, it would never have happened,” he says.

Entertaining the Russians

One of Damien’s stand out memories is both highly entertaining and almost unbelievable. The year was 1993, the Cold War wasn’t long over, and American firefighters were coming to Dublin to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. In the spirit of reconciliation, an invitation was also extended to the Russian fire brigade through Ann’s brother-in-law, who had business in Russia, with their air tickets sponsored by another brother. Seventeen stepped off the plane in Shannon, including 13 generals and a member of the Ministry for the Interior (formerly the KGB), who sent a fax before their arrival requesting that his presence remain a secret. Included in the party was one General Rubtsov, who had received acclaim as the commander in charge of the fire in Chernobyl in 1986.

“That was the start of the biggest adventure of all,” Damien recalls. The following week would prove to be an interesting one, filled with sightseeing, functions in Guinness and the Russian embassy, and some memorable events that must remain untold. Damien was placed in charge of the Russian contingent, as it had been his idea to invite them over, showing them around the city and ensuring they were well fed (various establishments around the city fed the Russians at no cost). Damien often took calls at the restaurants or pubs from other members on a shopping expedition from which most members of the group returned with pairs of skis for $1 (despite the absence of snow in Ireland) and were guarded by a unit of Spetsnaz (Russian special forces) at their hotel throughout their stay.

During a visit to the fire brigade museum, they were shown a section containing all of the presents given to the general in Ireland, including a photo of Damien and the group. A musical session in Moscow’s Gorky Park with the Russian Army No 1 band and a feast at Mikhail Gorbachev’s summer home rounded off a trip that nobody involved has ever forgotten. Though another Russian visit to Ireland was planned, a visa issue meant that the Russians never boarded their plane, and they never heard from their friends in Moscow again.

Retired Life

These days, Damien still keeps busy. An active member of the Retired Members Association, he also continues his role as drum major with the Pipe Band, which says is still looking for recruits, and occasionally meets with firefighters from other countries, showing them around Dublin city. His sons Dan and Chris have both followed their father into the job, and he has shared with them his own personal motto – never take no for an answer, one that has served him well throughout the years in the fire brigade (and outside).

“As I said to Dan, if you’re going to be the boss, be the boss – take charge, do. Just because somebody tells you that it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t,” he says. “The two things that I started, the magazine and the band, are still going strong. I’d like to think that I contributed something to the brigade. And how many people can say that?”