Retired Member Profile Paddy O’Mahony

Former D/O Paddy O’Mahony talks to Adam Hyland about his career and second chance at life.

As a former firefighter who rose to the rank of D/O, Paddy O’Mahony gained a lot of experience and saw a great deal in his career, but is more than happy to now spend his time at home relaxing, or “becoming a lazy individual” as he puts it.

Enjoying his life now is even more poignant considering that in 2010, aged 57, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a debilitating disease that saw him given just three years to live.

A lung transplant gave him a second chance, and his return to health is an experience that ranks as high as any of those he gained in his career as a firefighter, he tells me.

That career began in February 1978 when Paddy left a job in the post office to join Dublin Fire Brigade. “It might sound like a cliché,” he tells me, “but I wanted to serve the public. So, I joined up, and after training in Kilbarrack, I was sent to Tara Street on B Watch, and after a year there was sent out to Finglas.”

Following several years serving in Finglas, Paddy was promoted to Sub-Officer and returned to Tara Street on B Watch.

“I was a little apprehensive when I first became a Sub-Officer,” he says, “because instead of taking orders I was giving them, and sometimes to firefighters who were a hell of a lot more senior than I was and had more operational experience. But after a while I bedded into the role and realised that it wasn’t as cut and dried as that, and that I had something to offer. I enjoyed it more then.”


After six years as Sub-Officer, Paddy was promoted to Station Officer and was sent to Phibsoro station, and took the change in his stride. “The transition from firefighter to Sub-Officer was big but the transition from Sub-Officer to Station Officer wasn’t as dramatic, because you had partly been doing the work of an S/O anyway,” he tells me. “Changing stations a lot didn’t matter to me, because while the surroundings and the faces might be a bit different, the actual job remained the same, and I enjoyed the job.”

Becoming “a floater”, Paddy moved around to various stations depending on their needs, before he was once more sent to Finglas where he was a relief S/O, and began training recruits on various pieces of equipment and became a BA Instructor.

After several more years he was again on the move, this time stationed in Rathfarnham, where he served for three years, then C Watch in Blanchardstown, before returning to Tara Street as a Senior S/O on A Watch.

“After all of that, I was sent back to Phibsboro A Watch on a permanent basis,” he says, “and was there a few years before I became D/O and moved to Finglas. I must say I enjoyed working in every station, but I especially liked the good many years I spent in Finglas, both as a firefighter and an officer, because I was brought up in Finglas
and knew the area well. I felt comfortable there.”


The final move was back to Tara Street D Watch, where Paddy became Mobilisation Officer, but he tells me that in his time as a firefighter, he saw a huge variety of incidents that all helped him build up a large volume of knowledge and experience.

“When faced with some bad situations, your humanity kicks in and sometimes you ask how something could have happened, but you also have to approach it as a situation that has to be dealt with,” he says. “DFB has been on the frontline for more than a century, they are almost always the first on the scene, so you have to be able to deal with whatever you face.”

That building up of experience was, and is, important to Paddy, and he is keen to point out that the knowledge shared by other firefighters helped him immensely when it came to his own career.

“The thing is that it is important to listen to those around you,” he tells me. “One of the beauties of the Fire Brigade is that a lot of tradesmen come into the job – carpenters, electricians, mechanics, plumbers – who have a lot of knowledge, and that is why it is important to get to know the people you work with, because you can gain great knowledge from them and their experiences.”

He gives an example of a callout that involved an articulated truck crashing into a petrol station forecourt with the vehicle stopping right above two pumps. “I was looking at the situation with no idea how to get the truck off the pumps,” he says, “but one of the lads, who was a mechanic, explained and showed me what to do. When the job was done, I said thanks to him, because if he hadn’t shared his knowledge, I would still be standing there scratching my head.

“I always remember he said ‘thanks for listening to me’, and that meant a lot to me, because I appreciated what he had told me, but he also appreciated that I had recognised the part he had played, and was willing to take on board his experience and use it.

“There were a few incidents like that where lads with specific knowledge or experience were able to suggest the best way to do something, and I learned from them. But you have to be open to these suggestions. It makes life easier if you are prepared to listen to others and learn from them. In order to be a part of a good working team you need to be able to do that and put what you have learned into practice the next time, and pass on your experience after that.”


Back in Tara Street as Mobilisation Officer, life took a sudden turn for Paddy in 2010.

“I got to the stage where I was having difficulty going up and down the stairs at work, so I went to my GP, who sent me to Beaumont Hospital for tests,” he tells me. “They thought I had TB, but after more tests, the next day the doctor told me I actually had Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. That information went over my head, so I asked him to explain, and he told me that I had scarring of the lungs.

“I was shocked when I asked for a prognosis and he told me I had two and a half to three years to live. I just sat there beside my wife trying to take it all in, I couldn’t believe it, it didn’t seem real because while I was having trouble breathing, I didn’t feel that unwell.”

Paddy returned to work, knowing that time was not on his side, and while hooked up to oxygen, continued in his job as a way to deal with the situation and not feel “like a patient”. He was put on a transplant list and eventually in 2013, when time was running out, he underwent surgery to receive a donor lung, and nine days later was back home, even taking to his bike for exercise.

“I was very lucky, and I am very grateful to the family of the donor, and that I have been able to recover,” he says, “and I was able to return to work within the year. I was very lucky in that at the time of my diagnosis my job meant I didn’t have to turn out anymore, because as a D/O, I didn’t have to do manual work, I was paid from the neck up, so to speak. Other officers also helped out by giving me their leave, which was very kind of them.”


With a new lease of life, Paddy looked to repay what he could and within DFB organised charity cycling fundraisers for the Irish Lung Fibrosis Association and the Irish Heart and Lung Transplant Association, which he became chairman of, with the help of FF/P Brendan Lodola and his brother Mario. He also helped raise awareness for organ donation and took part in the European Transplant Games in 2014 where he took home a medal for golf.

Paddy also decided after a period back in work that by 2014 it was time to retire, and looking back, he says he has “nothing but admiration and praise for DFB members” but knew when it was time to leave.

“I got to the stage where I had been in the job for 37 years, and didn’t need to keep doing it,” he says. “I had done my service and earned my retirement, after working all my life.

“The downside,” he adds, “is that you can lose a sense of purpose. I also miss the comradeship and the bit of craic, and there is a great black humour in the job that I really enjoyed. I always enjoyed going to work, there was never a day I didn’t look forward to going in, and when I finished one shift, I looked forward to the next one. I have to say I enjoyed my time in DFB 100%, and if someone was to ask me if I would go back and do it all again, I would definitely be happy to do it.”

DFB in the Tan War 1920

While public centenary commemorations are on hold, we can still remember DFB members’ roles in the events of 1920, writes DFB Historian Las Fallon.

Initially, I had planned an article on the burning of Cork City by the Crown Forces in December 1920, and the DFB response to an appeal for assistance from Cork. I will cover that here, but also want to look at that whole last quarter of 1920 and how some events involved members of DFB in roles that have been overlooked.

Like many historians, I looked forward to this year with great anticipation. 1920 was the year when the struggle for independence became a countrywide fight, and I had hoped the year would be full of commemorations similar to what we saw in 2016 for the centenary of the Rising. COVID-19 has put an end to that, and it has been left to local communities and local authorities to mark the events of 100 years ago.

I was delighted to see the involvement of firefighters from Balbriggan in commemorative events in that town to mark the reign of terror by the RIC/Black and Tans on 21 September 1920. As was almost always the case during the Revolution, DFB did not leave the city to attend that fire, which was considered ‘out of area’.

In his annual report, Captain Myers notes that the Brigade did not attend fires in Balbriggan, an outbreak ‘due to armed incendiarists’. He did not mention that the incendiarists, and indeed murderers on the night, were policemen.

The previous month, on 15 August 1920, an IRA unit had staged its spectacular raid at Kingsbridge Railway Station when they had overpowered a British Army squad guarding railway wagons full of military equipment. The IRA unit captured ten rifles, a revolver and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition before tying up the hapless Tommies and setting fire to the carriages.

On arrival, the Chief Officer refused to intervene on the grounds that the railway authorities and military made no attempt to put out the fire and that it was linked to an industrial dispute. By this period, DFB was not interfering with any military actions by the IRA. I have looked at this in some detail in my books Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (2012) and The Firemen’s Tale (2015) and in articles elsewhere.


The last quarter of 1920 was particularly bloody. In Dublin, the raid on troops at Monks Bakery on Church Street had led to the capture and execution of 18-year-old Dublin Brigade Volunteer Kevin Barry. The British forces, and especially the Royal Irish Constabulary, had been reinforced by demobilised soldiers recruited more for their combat experience than any suitability for a role as policemen.

The ‘Black and Tans’ – named for their early members being outfitted in a mix of RIC bottle green (almost black) and British Army khaki – and a second group, the Auxiliary Division, or ‘the Auxies’. The Auxies were ex commissioned officers of the British forces, designed to be a special forces-type unit, operating in well-armed, independent companies.

Through November, the Auxies put their stamp on the situation. A priest suspected of IRA sympathies, Fr Griffin of Galway, was abducted and shot dead on 14 November. Four prisoners were bayoneted to death at Scarrif, Co Clare on 18 November, and on 26 November the two Loughnane brothers in Galway were captured by Auxies, tortured and executed by having hand grenades detonated in their mouths.

The Auxiliaries’ first casualties came on 21 November 1920 in Dublin during what became known as Bloody Sunday. Two Auxies making their way to their HQ at Beggars Bush were captured and shot by an IRA unit. The series of IRA executions of British secret service officers carried out that morning had been facilitated by the work of the IRA’s General Headquarters intelligence staff, relying on intelligence operatives, including Dublin firemen, who had carried out surveillance. As one of the few groups who could travel through the city during curfew, they were able to observe the movements of suspected men.

Later that day in a planned reprisal, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Auxies went to the Dublin/Tipperary football game at Croke Park and opened fire on the crowd. DFB ambulances were quickly on the scene and Firemen Michael Rogers and Ned Doyle removed the body of Michael Hogan from the pitch. Another ambulance with 1916 veteran and later CFO Joe Connolly, took another casualty, Michael Traynor from the family home of former Dublin Lord Mayor Nial Ring where he had been taken for first aid by the Ring brothers (themselves 1916 veterans).


On 28 November an ambush by the 3rd West Cork Brigade flying column at Kilmichael near Macroom wiped out a patrol of 17 Auxies. The British forces were left reeling and prepared a major reprisal on the population of Cork. On 11 December 1920, an Auxie mobile patrol from Victoria (now Collins) Barracks in Cork City was ambushed at Dillons Cross. One Auxiliary, Cadet Chapman, was killed and several others wounded. Very shortly, Auxies and regular British troops arrived and burned local houses, before entering Cork city centre to begin an orgy of destruction. The scale of the fires was soon beyond the capacity of the Cork City Fire Brigade who were fired on by British troops and had their hoses cut by bayonets. City Hall and the Carnegie library were set on fire, and the Chief of the Cork City Brigade appealed for help to Dublin Fire Brigade.

The appeal was received and for the only time during the period it was decided to send an engine and crew out of the city limits. Captain Myers appealed for volunteers and chose Firemen Bernard Matthews, James Barry, Christopher McDonagh, James Keane, Nicolas Seaver, Joe Connolly and Michael Rogers. They travelled by special train and arrived in the early hours of the morning.

The Dublin crew helped to bring the major blazes under control, with Myers and his men amazed at the level of destruction, which they compared to Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising. I have identified Michael Rogers as an IRA Volunteer, as was Joe Connolly, an Irish Citizen Army veteran of 1916, while James Keane is identified in one account as an IRA intelligence operative.

Christopher McDonagh’s action at the Custom House the following year would lead to the escape of four IRA men dressed as firefighters. Again, this is just another pointer to the involvement of Dublin firefighters in our fight for freedom. Hopefully when COVID recedes and we return to some normality, we can revisit some of this year’s lost centenaries and celebrate them with a ‘100+1’ series of events.

The Main Event

In the second part of our series, Adam Hyland returns to Class 1/2019 at the end of their training as they prepare for, and complete their passing out to become professional firefighters.

The OBI was a flurry of activity when I went to visit Recruit Class 1/2019 in September. Now in the midst of their final preparations for pass out the following week, they were being put through their paces on a marching exercise in the drill yard. “They’ll get it right though, because they have to,” Course Director A/D/O Joe Mangan tells me.

A lot has happened since I first met them at the end of July, when they had just completed basic training and moved on to specialist courses. Another gruelling couple of months later, they were almost ready to graduate as professional firefighters, an achievement that comes after months of solid effort and hard work.

Under the guidance of Brigade Training Officer Brendan Carroll and Assistant Brigade Training Officer Frank Kiernan, Course Director A/D/O Mangan, Assistant Course Director Cormac Cahill, six syndicate officers and a large number of specialist instructors, all 36 recruits came through their specialist courses successfully.

“Each course has its own individualities, but overall, the key learning outcomes have been achieved in each course,” A/D/O Mangan tells me, “and each recruit is meeting the same standard. They all had to reach the same competencies, and they have all successfully done that.”

He adds: “As with anything, some sailed through the courses, some needed a little more work, but they all got there. That’s the instructors’ job, to push them and to help them as much as they can. The instructors put a lot of work in, coming in early to set up scenarios, etc, and putting work into individual recruits who need it. The goal is to get them through it, and we did get them through it. Everything is achievable, once you put the work in.”


This ethos, he says, will carry on into the job, with nine of the recruits going operational shortly after pass out, while others return to the OBI Training Centre to start their paramedic training. Those going operational will return to complete their paramedic training next year after gaining valuable experience on the frontline.

“For the lads going operational, they are going to have to build their experience, build on their training. They are going to gain a lot of experience working as firefighters and using the training they have acquired here,” A/D/O Mangan says.

Those moving on to the paramedic course will go operational just before Christmas. “They have another long journey ahead of them, and a lot of challenges, in regards to studying and applying themselves in a more academic way. A lot of the stuff they have been through at the OBI has been physical, hands on work, but on the paramedic side, there is a lot of knowledge to be learned, so it will be a different format, and a different challenge, for them.”

The recruits from the Louth and Galway Fire Service are preparing to return home and begin their careers as full-time professional firefighters. “It’s an exciting time for them,” A/D/O Mangan tells me. “They were all retained previously, and going full-time is something they have always wanted. They now go in, do their job, and know when they have to be in work, when they have time off… No more having their dinner interrupted by the beeper going off. I’m sure their families will be looking forward to that.”

When first meeting the recruit class, it was interesting to hear their initial impressions and to find out what aspect of training they found toughest, what they were looking forward to, and what they were anxious to get over and done with. With these courses now completed, I ask A/D/O Mangan for his thoughts.

“For most of them, even the thoughts of doing BA was daunting, especially when they heard the war stories from the first group to do it,” he says, “but once they got into doing it, they all seemed to enjoy it, looking back. It’s tough, but every course has its own challenges. Some excel at BA, but might find the pump or SRT hard, it’s all different challenges.”

Getting through training and becoming a firefighter obviously requires discipline, but with the end so close, I wonder how that sense of focus is kept.

“Discipline is key, especially when they go operational, and they know that when they are asked to do something, they do it – that’s how the DFB operate,” A/D/O Mangan tells me. “Having said that, they know that the end is in sight now, so they are a bit more relaxed on the drill yard. But once they are in prep mode, they switch on again and are focused.

“When they finished their specialty courses, we got them all back for basic training, hose rolling, ladders, etc, to make sure they knew it was time to switch back on. Once we were happy with their standard again, we decided they could start on pass out prep. It’s their day, a big occasion for them and their families who will be there to support them, so we are saying we will get you there, but you need to put the work in first.”

Preparing for pass out means perfecting drills to be performed on the day. “It’s just practice, practice, practice to get it all ready,” A/D/O Mangan says. “The training they have been doing all along means that they are ready to step into these exercises without any difficulty. Once we give them a role, they perform that, and have ample time to practice it. They are almost fully-qualified firefighters now, so there should be no problems for them.”

What advice would you give Class 1/2019 as they move on to the next phase of their careers? I ask.

“Never forget their training,” A/D/O Mangan says. “Remember that every day in the DFB is a learning day, every incident they go to, they are going to learn something new, and they need to learn from the experience of other firefighters. As much as we can teach them in the Training Centre, nothing will compare to the experience when they go operational, and that is what they have to learn, to build on that experience.

“They are going to have to deal with certain experiences, and that’s where senior firefighters will look after them. But also enjoy it. You should be looking forward to going into work every day, and I think everyone in the DFB does. Just enjoy it. I would like to personally wish them all the best in their careers, to have a happy and safe career.”


Darren Donnelly had completed the RTC course and had just started the BA course when I first spoke to him in July. For him, each course was tough but ultimately rewarding. “BA was the hardest,” he says, “but one of the more enjoyable ones. It was great to be getting involved in what we would actually be doing a lot. Then when we got to the SRT course, that was great. We went to Lara and then Wren’s Nest in Lucan, great fun, a great course. It was good to be getting into the water because I love swimming. That was the best course for me, but as regards best memories, well there were a couple of moments in the BA course. But it was great all round.”

He is looking forward to pass out. “To pass out will mean the world to me. It’s been a long process since I applied for the job, that was three years ago. To say I am nearly finished now is unreal.”

After that, it’s a return to the OBI. “It’s pass out next week, and then straight into paramedic training the following week. There’s a lot to learn, so I will be hitting the books, working hard. That will be three months, so I will finish just in time to go operational by Christmas.”

“Right now, we are just flapping to get the pass out parade prep done, so the minds are all focused on that,” Keith Russell tells me. “We are getting there. There’s a lot to do for each individual group. The foot drill is going… well, it’s going. We just need to stay tuned in. The displays are in some regards easier because we are in a collective group and you can give each other a hand and help if they are doing something wrong, but with the foot drill, every individual needs to stay tuned in. By pass out it will be polished.

“My family will be coming up for the pass out. It’s something very special for the families, but it also lets them see the results of the hard work we have done. They can now say: ‘Oh that’s what you were at for the last 14 weeks.’

“It will be nice for the family to see the Training Centre too, because up to now I have been talking about the OBI, and they have said to me I may as well be talking to the man in the moon.” He continues: “To pass out will be great, to get through the DFB training and start the job. There’s a lot of work in it, you can’t take your foot off the pedal, some of it a challenge, some of it enjoyable.”

Keith had completed the EFR and pump courses, and had just started RTC when we first spoke. He too found the remaining courses tough but rewarding.

“I think each of the specials had their own challenges,” he tells me. “I would have had BA experience from my retained job (in Navan), but there was always something new to learn, and a new challenge for everybody. None of us thought we were out for a walk in the park. It was a matter of getting through them.

“For me, the EFR was great. The paramedic instructors we had were excellent and it was really good to gain the experience from them, and they encouraged us to get stuck in.”

He recollects on some elements of each course. “The sewer crawl was interesting, I have to say. It was cold and… interesting. Something I had never experienced before, it was tough, but it was enjoyable too. The compartment fire training, I thought how it was done was brilliant, the instructors were great. And the positive pressure ventilation was something I had only read about, but to be hands on and see the workings of it was brilliant, and I am looking forward to using it in the job.

“There’s been ups and downs, but I enjoyed most of it. BA and RTC stood out for me. There was so much to learn. Hazmat was enjoyable too. How the instructors did it made it really good. It was tough and physical, but there wasn’t one course I absolutely hated. It was all about staying focused and getting through it.”

Keith is one of the nine recruits going operational. “I am a little bit wary that I am going into the job without the paramedic training done yet,” he admits, “so I think I’ll be bringing in the box of biscuits to apologise. But I am looking forward to actually going operational.

“I am looking forward to working hands on with experienced firefighters and paramedics in real situations, and it’s an opportunity for me to learn and prepare me well for when I come back in to do the paramedic training. It’s been a long trek, but it’s been a great experience, and a good few friendships have been made along the way.”

Ross Bell had also completed the pump and EFR courses and had started on RTC when we first met. He is returning to Carlingford to take up a position as a full-time firefighter with Louth Fire Service after working as a retained firefighter for many years, and found the rest of training to be invaluable.

“It was brilliant,” he tells me. “We were pretty flat out with the specialty courses – SRT, two weeks RTC and three weeks of BA back to back, so we were flat to the mat. It was very good to get through the BA because there was no time for contemplation, you know when you get into work that you will be thrown in the deep end. The SRT was great too – it was full-on, but it is important to be able to know what you might be faced with.”

He too is in full on pass out prep mode when we speak. “Apart from a lot of polishing of the shoes, it’s grand – everybody is looking forward to it,” he tells me. “The wife and children will be coming up, and that is great, because they will get to see what I have been doing for the last three months. I don’t think people, even your family, know exactly what it is we are doing. This will give them an idea, after the late nights coming home tired, this shows them what we have been up to. It was hard to come home late, very tired, getting your dinner at 9pm, but at least now we can show that all the hard work was worth it. It’s three months flat out, but overall it gets you ready for the job.”

For him, turning professional will bring positive changes to his family life. “Going full-time will bring some normality to life,” he says. “Back home, I was five days a week, 24 hours a day on call, restricted in where you could live because you need to be within minutes of the station, and I was doing that for 12 years. Now as a full-time firefighter, it will be a nice change to be able to know what my week is like. There is more of a structure to it, and then to family life as a result.”

Michael Kiernan tells me that pass out prep is hectic. “There’s a lot going on but everybody is very clear in what they have to do now. Everybody is just hoping we can get it all together for when we have to do it in front of the families.”

For him, passing out will bring a great sense of pride. “This will be the toughest thing I have ever done, but also the thing I will get the most satisfaction out of when we pass out. I am looking forward to the day, and to sharing it with my family.”

Michael had just completed the BA course when we first spoke, and looks back on it and other courses as difficult but enjoyable. “The toughest part of the training was BA, without a doubt, both physically and mentally. The course I enjoyed the most was the RTC course, from a personal point of view. I don’t know why I enjoyed the RTC so much, I just found myself enjoying being on the tools, getting hands on. Plus, from my time in the Control Room, I saw that the RTC call outs are the most common ones the DFB get, they are day in, day out. So, I found it interesting to see what is involved. I also enjoyed learning about the different parts of the car and the tools, it was all new to me, but I felt the courses, especially the RTC course, really enhanced my practical skills.

“It has been a very tough summer,” he adds. “I learned a lot of things. I enjoyed it in the main, and I would have to say I am glad it’s over, but in the positive sense, it’s a great sense of achievement and satisfaction. For me, it’s on to the paramedic course now, which will be another challenge, so there’s no rest for the wicked. After that, it’s into the job itself, just before Christmas, so it will be a busy end to the year. But it is what it is, it’s always busy!”

Domhnall Mac Donnacha is returning to Galway to become a full-time firefighter in the city after pass out, having been retained for several years. “We finish on the Friday and the following Monday I will be doing the aerial platform course for a week before I start the following week on Blue Watch, so there isn’t much of a break,” he tells me.

Pass out prep is going well for him. “It’s good. Myself and two other chippies on the course threw a little house together for the pass out demonstrations, and it’s holding up nicely,” he says. “The marching has to be done too. We were getting a drilling over that, but we will get there. We march almost every day, so we don’t have the excuse. We have been doing it for so long that we know we can pull it together, but at first maybe we are thinking about passing out, rather than where our feet are.

“Looking back over it, I know we will never have this time together as a group again. Even though it has been very tough, there has been a bond within the training, so I am taking the time in this last week to enjoy being around my class mates, because we won’t get all 36 of us together again.”

As with Ross Bell, becoming a full-time firefighter will be what he calls “a life-changer”.

“As a retained firefighter, it really is a full-time job, you are on call 24/7, and to actually have a better standard of life where I can enjoy my four days off and not have to worry about missing a call, so it’s a huge change. You can’t look away from the stability either. I love the job, and can’t see myself anywhere else. I really enjoy it. It means a lot for me to be going into the job.”

His experiences in training were all positive, he says. “It’s a lot of hard work, but the DFB made it easy for me, coming up from Galway. The course was great, I really enjoyed it, all the instructors and D/Os were second to none, they were very obliging. The BA was very good, the Swiftwater was great too – it was nice to get out of the OBI for a day – not that there is anything wrong with the OBI but it was a break, a change of scenery. The instructors were very good, and I enjoyed the water in Lara. The Liffey swim wasn’t as enjoyable, but hopefully I won’t have to get into it again, it will be the Corrib from now on!”


And so, it was on to the day itself, Wednesday, 18 September, when in glorious sunshine the 36 recruits passed out in front of their family, friends, instructors, DFB Officers and dignitaries, including Dublin Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe, Galway Mayor Mike Cubbard, and Louth Mayor Fran Treanor. Also there to witness their firefighters graduate were A/C/F/O of Galway Fire Service Michelle Hanly, Louth Fire Service CFO Eamon Woulfe, and representatives of the Northern Ireland Fire Service.

Following a performance by the DB Pipe Band, the recruits marched on to the drill yard before the Lord Mayor gave his address.

“It’s a great honour for me to be here as Lord Mayor of Dublin on what is a fantastic family day,” Mr McAuliffe told the crowd. “The firefighters of Class 1/2019, you and your families will never forget today, you will never forget the achievement that this event underlines. Today is the highlight of three months of hard work for each and every one of you.

“I’m very proud to welcome the new recruits into the Dublin Fire Brigade and I wish you all the very best in your future careers. You now have a proud position to uphold, and I have no doubt that following your training, you will be willing and able to do that. Congratulations to each and every one of you.”

Later in the day, I ask the Lord Mayor about his first experience of a DFB pass out. “There’s a huge tradition within the DFB, and a huge tradition with Dublin City Council. My Aide de Camp stands by me, and Lord Mayors will always stand by the Fire Brigade,” he tells me. “The DFB defend the city, and I will always encourage the City Council to defend the DFB. There are those who believe our fire service is not the future, but it absolutely is the future, and we need to make sure that’s the way it stays.”

A/C/F/O Richard Hedderman also addressed the crowd on behalf of Brigade Training Officer Brendan Carroll. “It is a very big day for Class 1 2019. Sixteen weeks ago, these men arrived here, and now they are ready to pass out as fully-trained firefighters. I would like to thank Training Officer Brendan Carroll, Assistant Training Officer Frank Kiernan, and D/Os Mangan and Cahill, who trained these recruits to the highest standard.

“Every recruit here today will be following in the footsteps of many men and women who have gone before them, and we expect very high standards. When called upon, the support they need will be there for them. All that’s left is to wish every one of you well in the future and within your careers in the DFB, and I have no doubt you will continue to deliver the highest standard to the people of Dublin.”

Following an inspection of the recruits by the three Mayors present and the Officers from Louth and Galway, it was time for the recruits to demonstrate their skills under the blazing sun, with compere D/O Hughy O’Leary as always threading the storyline together as special guests the Bumbleance Bee and Irish Blood Tranfusion Service mascot Blood Drop were rescued from a series of emergency situations.

Both were present on the day for the presentation of a cheque of €6,583, made possible by fundraising efforts by the recruits a few weeks previously.

The foot drill demo was followed by a ladder rescue, RTC, Hazmat and Fire/EMS demo, before it was time to present pass out scrolls to the recruits, and the Silver Axe award for Best Recruit, which went to Derek Baitson.


With the formalities over and done with, it was time for Class 1/2019 t to celebrate with each other and their families as they merged onto the drill yard amidst cheers and horns. Each of the recruits I spoke to were delighted with how the day went.

In the middle of the celebrations, Keith Russell tells me: “It’s a great feeling. Looking back, it was October 2015 when I was accepted, it is the best part of four years of work. So, to pass out is fantastic. The weather is great, the sun is shining, everyone is flying, it’s just great!”

Domhnall Mac Donnacha says: “I am happy it’s all done now. Time to celebrate! I’m really happy and can’t wait to get started in Galway now.”

He was greeted by Galway Fire Service A/C/F/O Michelle Hanly, who said: “We are thrilled for him. It’s fantastic for him, and fantastic for us, and I can’t wait to see him up and running in the city. He will fit in well, amongst old colleagues, so it’s just positive for everybody. I’m delighted for him.”

“Today was unreal,” Ross Bell tells me. “It’s a very good feeling to have finished, great to get through this course and return to Louth to work as a full-time firefighter.”

Michael Kiernan tells me: “It was a great day, it all went very well, and it’s a great day for my family as well, we are all very proud. I’m glad it’s over in one way, it was a tough three months, but it was a great experience, and very enjoyable. Today was brilliant!”

“I’m absolutely delighted, over the moon,” Darren Donnelly says. “Everything just went perfectly, and I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sun was out, so that made it even better. A really great day!”

The celebrations would continue for each member of Class 1/2019, but before long they will be back to work. Whether that is on operations in Dublin, Louth or Galway, or the paramedic course at the Training Centre, I wish them many congratulations and the very best of luck.

Many thanks must go to A/D/O Joe Mangan and the recruits who took time out from an extremely busy schedule to talk to me.

Retired Member Profile Willie O’Leary

Adam Hyland talks to retired firefighter Willie O’Leary about his varied career in the DFB

Willie O’Leary’s time with the Dublin Fire Brigade has been one of variety, having served in a number of stations across his 44-year career. During that time, he witnessed the expansion of DFB, first as one of the new recruits in 1963, and then as an officer as new stations opened across the city.

He joined Class 1/1963, the first of two classes that year. “That was the first year of the major expansion, when a lot more people were being brought in,” he says. “When I joined, my number was 158, and when you think about the numbers involved today, it shows how much the organisation has expanded since.”

Having two classes in one year is now not unusual, but Willie tells me that up until that year, it would have been, and what was more unusual was that the class saw active duty very early on.

“The night our class photo was taken, we got a call and were all taken out of the classroom and put on the old Green Goddess vehicles, and brought to a big fire at Fiat Motors in the docks,” he tells me. “Two firemen were seriously injured that night, so it was a major incident, but that was my first fire. You could say it was a baptism of fire.”

After graduation, Willie was stationed at Tara Street, but was soon on the move, and spent time at several stations around the city, some of them just opened. “I was posted to A Watch in Dolphin’s Barn on the very day it opened,” he says. “I moved to Dorset Street and was there until 1974, then was posted back to Tara Street, then North Strand in 1976, where I was promoted to Sub Officer, then Tallaght in 1982, as well as Finglas. I was then promoted to S/O in 1983, then D/O in 1995.”

Willie was serving as S/O for the opening of Phibsboro station, telling me that his was the first engine in there, as well as for the opening of Rathfarnham and Donnybrook stations, while his was “the last car out of Rathmines before it closed”, so he has witnessed a lot of change over the years.

When I ask how he came to be at the opening of so many stations, and if this was a case of ‘right place, right time’, he laughs: “That’s debateable! I just happened to be the S/O on the day, and you were just told to go.”

While he was serving in Finglas, Willie was involved in putting together a document called Working Together alongside Dublin Airport – who came under their jurisdiction at the time – the Gardaí and other relevant organisations to create a protocol for responding to incidents at the airport.

“Until then, we would take charge of any incident there,” he tells me, “but we looked at best practices and came up with the Working Together plan. That document is still in use today, though it has been updated.”

Willie was also heavily involved in the Port Tunnel project.

“That was very interesting,” he tells me. “I oversaw the equipment needed and the testing of that, before we brought people to the Training Centre where they were given different projects to work on. Myself, the then Assistant Chief Fire Officer and Richard Hedderman were involved in this, as well as a young firefighter called Dennis Keeley, who was brought in on logistics. Look where he is now!

“I was also involved in the plans for the types of vehicle and equipment that would be needed, and tested the gear we would need to wear. That included having to walk from the Tunnel entrance at Whitehall to Fairview to test the gear and see if it was ok to breathe in over distance.”

Asking about the good and bad times, Willie tells me that in 1972, while he was at Dorset Street, he was the first vehicle at the scene of the Noyeks timber yard fire on Parnell Street, where eight people had lost their lives. “That stayed in the memory,” he tells me.

“I did enjoy my time though,” he adds. “The most rewarding thing was the comradeship between individuals. You worked with individuals you depended on, and they depended on you. I think that is the Dublin Fire Brigade story, really.

“I only retired in 2007 after 44 years, and I was happy that because I was a D/O, I could go on in the job and didn’t have to retire at 55.

“I wouldn’t say I miss the job now, but it did take me a while to return to the normal way of life after leaving,” he tells me, “because being in the Dublin Fire Brigade means you live from call to call.”

Upon retirement, Willie has remained an active part of the Sports and Social Club and the Retired Members Association, where he is Vice-Chairman, and similar to his career, has seen a lot of variety in his roles.

“I was involved in the Sports and Social Club for almost 40 years,” he says. “I am still a Trustee, but I was Chairman, Treasurer, and put my time in the bar business to good use as bar manager when we used to have a club bar. I was a bit of a jack of all trades.”

That has continued to this day, with Willie now in his retirement spending his time doing a number of different things.

I spend a lot of time in the garden, a lot of walking, and I play bowls, there’s variety,” he agrees. “But I must say, I really enjoyed my career in the Dublin Fire Brigade, from the time I went in until the time I left.”

Class action

In the first of a series, we take a look at how the Class 1/2019 recruits are getting on as they reach the halfway point of their training, by Adam Hyland.

Whether it’s a recent or a long-forgotten memory, all members of the Dublin Fire Brigade have had to go through recruit training before they become fully-fledged professional firefighters, and Class 1/2019 were being put through their paces throughout the summer.

On June 10, 36 recruits gathered at the OBI Training Centre to start an intensive 15-week course, before they move on to either their paramedic training, or join a crew of one of the stations across Dublin or other regions of the country.

“They are going well so far,” Course Director A/D/O Joe Mangan told me when we met at the end of June, when the class had been put through three weeks of basic training and had begun to move on to specialist courses. “They started off as 36 individuals, but they are gelling well as a class, and there seems to be a good camaraderie between them all, both at syndicate and group level.”

From the outset, the idea that they needed to work together as a unit was emphasised. “We told them on day one that to get through this you are going to have to be there for each other, it’s all about teamwork,” A/D/O Mangan says.

The class was divided into three groups of 12, with each group undergoing specialist courses at different times according to a pre-planned schedule. By the end of July, Group 1 had done their practical firefighting and BA courses, Group 2 had done practical and RTC, and had just started their BA course, and Group 3 had completed their practical, pump and EFR, and were about to start their RTC training.

“They are all at different stages, but by the end of the training, each group will have done exactly the same and be trained to the same level,” A/D/O Mangan adds.

In order to bring a certain level of experience into the mix, the number of retained firefighters from other regions within the class have been divided as evenly as possible between the groups. The class is further divided into six syndicates of six, again with the aim to share experience amongst each.

“That helps the groups out in terms of the support they can provide to each other,” A/D/O Mangan says. “Obviously, the instructor leads the group, but it’s good to have that bit of experience in some of the class, because they can share it with others. You can see the leaders coming out in the groups.”

Overseen by Brigade Training Officer Brendan Carroll and Assistant Brigade Training Officer Frank Kiernan, who are ultimately responsible for all training, apart from Course Director Mangan and Assistant Course Director Cormac Cahill, there are six syndicate officers throughout the basic training who also assist on or instruct on those courses. These are S/Off Nicky Farrell, S/Off Jim Doyle, S/Off Paul Daffy, S/Off Niall Grant, S/Off Keith Markey, S/Off Eugene Maher, A/S/Off Kevin Maypother and A/S/Off Paul Green, while a number of specialist instructors are also brought in for each course.

“We are very lucky that we have great instructors, both for basics and specialists, who bring a lot of experience in operations to the OBI, and that experience and expertise as instructors is paramount in getting the recruits across the line,” A/D/O Mangan says. “It all filters down. It’s important to start right.

“The GO, A/S/Off Kevin Maypother, is key as well,” A/D/O Mangan adds. “He is the link in case there are any issues. Touch wood, though, there haven’t been any issues in this class. They have gelled very well as a group. It’s baby steps at the start, but once you get them going, you gradually increase the pressure and build from there. It’s an ongoing process.”


That idea of working together is essential.

“The ethos of the fire brigade is teamwork,” A/D/O Mangan says. “We remind the class from the outset that we are in the business of saving lives and property, and rendering humanitarian services. An individual can’t do that, you have to work as a team, now as recruits, and then when they go operational at a station.”

Discipline is also key, with the recruits performing marching exercises every morning under the supervision of A/S/Off Green. “Marching instils discipline and they have to work together as a class to make sure it looks right,” A/D/O Mangan tells me. “During training they also have inspections to make sure the recruits and their environment are in proper shape.

“The training instils the idea in them that when they do go out to work at a station, if they are told to do something, they do it.”

In talking to some of the recruit class, the majority agreed that although all of the courses presented challenges, BA was the toughest for those who had already done it, and was the one most who hadn’t were apprehensive about.

“To an extent, BA is the toughest, and you can see in the groups that they are looking at the schedule and seeing when they are doing it,” A/D/O Mangan says, but he also stresses the importance of getting through the basic training successfully first. “The recruits do need to get the basics right before they can move on to other skills,” he says, “because if they don’t master the skills in the basic training, they are going to be behind in the likes of BA. Some of them at the start struggled with fitness, as always happens, but they all got through it and none of them complained. They have all been willing to put the effort in.

“Physically the RTC is a tough course, because you are lifting heavy tools constantly and carrying different parts of cars, vans, etc, so it is full throttle once they get going. They are all tough courses in their own way, but they get through it, and a lot of that is down to the instructors and the way they explain and teach it.

“Yes, the BA course is tough, the RTC course is tough, but some people might struggle in one and excel in another. By the end of September, they will all have made the competencies in each category and will leave here proficient firefighters, which is the goal.”


Once they do finish their specialist courses, focus will turn to preparing for pass out in mid-September. That, however, will not be the end of the training required, with learning now being an ongoing process.

“For the majority of them, it’s back to the OBI to start their paramedic course, which will finish in the weeks leading up to Christmas,” A/D/O Mangan says. “A number of them will go operational in September after pass out, but most will go straight into the paramedic training. So, they still have a long road ahead of them.

“Even when they go operational, they still have to gain experience. The learning never stops. They have to get through their probation period, need to knuckle down when they get assigned to a station. They will have learned a lot from their training, but they will learn tonnes more operationally from the firefighters and officers at their station.

“Every day is a learning day, every day they are progressing, right through their training, and each day they are gaining another element of the skills needed that will turn them into a fully-fledged professional firefighter. Even the firefighters already in the job, with ten, 20 years of experience, are learning. This class will leave here as professional firefighters, but every day will give them a chance to learn skills and knowledge that they can bring forward to the next incident they are called out to.”


But what do the recruits think of their training so far, and how did they find starting out on their careers as full-time firefighters? Some of the class volunteered to share their thoughts.

Keith Russell has been a retained firefighter in Navan, Co Meath, for 11 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. He tells me that a career in the DFB was always a major interest for him. “There’s a big difference between the retained life and the full-time life,” he says, “but there are many more opportunities working in the DFB, for example training as a paramedic, which you wouldn’t have in the Meath Fire Service.”

I ask him what his first impressions were, when he started his first day, and in the weeks that followed.

“The first couple of days were a bit of an eye-opener,” he tells me. “There was a lot of introductions and explaining what we would be doing, but by the Thursday of the first week we were rolling hose, and the next day we were on the monkey puzzle, so the legs were fairly tired after that.

“From then on we went into basic training. The first three weeks were full on for everybody, before we split into groups for the specialist courses.”

Keith’s group had by the end of July completed the practical firemanship, pump and EFR courses. “I had never done a pump training course before,” he says. “I had used them in the old job, but I’d never done the course. I found that really good, really beneficial and very interesting as well. The new recruits probably won’t be doing that in the job for a while, but at least we know that, just in case, if we pull up at a scene and the SO lets a roar at you, you can do it.

“We learned a little bit more about the stuff we would have done in basic training and got to hone our skills in the practical course. Then we did EFR. And this week we started RTC training. There’s a fair bit of sweating involved in it, but it is really enjoyable.”

The BA course is yet to come for Keith. “My group will be the last one to do that,” he says, “but we are hearing all of the stories from the other lads, there’s a lot of war stories coming back.”

For Keith, remaining on top of everything he has learned is one of the challenges.

“The exams are every week, so it’s a challenge to make sure you know what you are supposed to know, when you’re meant to know it,” he says. “The instructors are 100%, but obviously there is a lot of hard work involved, with plenty of aches and pains. My knees were in tatters after the first three weeks, but you just get on with it, take it on the chin and go again.”

The camaraderie that A/D/O Mangan says is so important is something Keith feels is very helpful for the entire class. “My Navan accent means I get a lot of banter,” he admits, “but there is good craic. As with anywhere, lads can have different strengths and weaknesses, but we are trained to help each other out. If you know something you pass it on, and if someone else knows something they pass it on.”

Keith is also very pleased with the training schedule overall. “The training is good because it is planned out very well. You have your day set, you know you will be coming in and doing X, Y and Z, and you know you have to perform. We know what we will be doing in the next few weeks as well, so you can look forward to each part of the training, or if there is something you’ve done already, you can tick it off the list.

“I’m enjoying the RTC course,” he adds. “There’s a great bunch of instructors there, very knowledgeable and eager to help us out. I’m looking forward to the BA course too. I know it will be hard, but at the end of the day, that’s a major part of the job.”

Overall, he feels lucky to have been given the chance to join the DFB. “The opportunities this job gives you, you don’t get anything like this anywhere else, and I don’t even know half of what is still to come.

“Once you get in, you have to grasp it. I heard it described as if you get in here, it’s like winning the lotto. You have to put the work in, obviously, but I plan to be in the DFB for as long as possible.”

Ross Bell is also a retained firefighter, from Co Louth, and plans to go full-time in either Dundalk or Drogheda when he completes his training. He too got a very good first impression of the OBI.

“It was brilliant. It’s some set-up here, the training facilities are excellent, top-notch, as are all the instructors, who really know their stuff,” he tells me.

“The training standards are really high. I’ve done all of the courses before in order to work with Louth fire service, but there are a lot of differences and this is brilliant because it polishes up what I have done previously, and also helps me to get rid of any bad habits I picked up over the years. We will all be coming out of this at the top of our game.”

Ross has so far completed the firemanship, EFR and pump courses, with his syndicate also starting on RTC. “BA, Swift Water and HazMat are still to come, so we will be flying by the end of the course,” he says. “There’s some exciting stuff ahead, and I hope to hit the ground running after those.”

He found that his group’s schedule allowed him to gradually settle into the course. “The RTC course we are doing now is very hands-on,” he admits, “but relatively speaking, we had the easier stuff first, with the pump and the EFR, giving us a sort of slow pace, while other groups were running around doing the BA stuff. Now, with the RTC, it is heating up, but it’s very good.”

He too finds that the atmosphere generated in the class is very helpful. “All the lads in the class are brilliant, and the lads you meet here, you will be going for pints with them for the next 30 years… hopefully,” he says. “But there is definitely a brotherhood to the DFB, and to the fire service in general. There wouldn’t be too many professions who can say that.”

“I had been looking forward to this for a few years, and I’m really enjoying it.”


Darren Donnelly from Dublin came into training for the DFB after several years in the Civil Defence, then three years in the Navy before transferring to the Army.

“My interest in the job built up after I did a lot of drills in the Civil Defence and Army, and saw what the DFB were doing. I knew that was what I wanted to be doing. There’s no job like it,” he tells me.

For him, the start of training was also “a bit of an eye opener” he admits. “That first Thursday when we were rolling out the hose, I was thinking, oh my god, I have six months left of this, but you grow into it, and there is a really good environment.”

Darren’s group has completed the practical and RTC courses so far, and has just started the BA course when we talk. “The RTC course was great, and I really enjoyed it,” he says. “The BA course is very tough, but it’s also enjoyable. It’s good to be doing that first bit of firemanship that you will be putting to use when you get out there into the job.

“The group who did BA before us were telling us all the horror stories, but you just have to let that go over your head and get on with it. When you do it, there’s a great sense of achievement.

“After this we have the pump course, HazMat and Swift Water. Hopefully it winds down after that. Then we can start getting ready for the passing out parade.”

He also praises the positive atmosphere. “All 36 of us get on really well. That helps us get through it, which is important, because, for example with the BA, you have to be comfortable with the people you are working with, and they have to be at ease knowing that you are beside them.”

Domhnall Mac Donnacha has been a retained firefighter in Carraroe in Connemara for three years, and will be joining the full-time service in Galway City when he completes training at the OBI.

Because he had already done some of the courses to work in Carraroe, he feels that he was perhaps a little more relaxed about what awaited him, but was immediately impressed by what was on offer.

“The first few weeks went very well,” he says. “As an organisation, it is very well run. The facilities are great, second to none.”

Domhnall’s group has by now completed the initial training and RTC, and has started the BA course, both of which have been enjoyable. “It’s hard work, especially with the weather we are having,” he tells me. “It’s our first week doing BA, so we haven’t been pushed too much, but you definitely have to be switched on for it. The RTC course was quite arduous too, because you are carrying and using heavy tools, you are in the full PPE the whole time.

“I’m a big fan of the BA, I really enjoy it, but I have to say the RTC course was very well run. There was no lack of cars to cut up. That was very good.”

As with the others, he feels that the atmosphere helps make the training go that much easier. “The lads are pulling together very well,” he says. “Everyone is paddling the same boat. There’s nobody put out.”

He particularly relishes the different challenges each day brings, even if they are tough. “I wouldn’t say anything gets easier or harder, you just have to recalibrate the way you are thinking,” he tells me. “Such as going from RTC into BA, you just have to switch off one part of your brain and turn on another, you are using different skills. It’s never a dull moment.

“I’m really looking forward to the next two weeks of BA, I really enjoy it. After that there is the Swift Water rescue, which I am looking forward to. We get out of the OBI for a few days, so that will be nice as well.”

Michael Kiernan was an emergency services controller for three and a half years in Tara Street before he started training.

“Training is intense,” he tells me. “It was hard to adjust for a week or two. I expected it, but you have to adjust. I just finished the BA course, and that took over my life for three weeks. I was exhausted. I think, in general, it is what it is for six months. It puts a strain on things at home, but family are very supportive. There are 36 lads here and we are all in the same boat. We all want to get through this and come out on the other side and do the job we all want to do.”

For him, the BA course has been the toughest part of training so far. “We did three weeks of basic training, which was tough enough in its own right – the drills were heavy – but then three weeks in BA… I had been told BA would be hard.

“RTC, which I won’t be doing until the end of my training, I have been told is quite hard going too, but BA was also mentally tough. You push yourself that bit harder during the BA because in relation to being a firefighter it is the bread and butter of the job – going under air into burning buildings, running in while other people are running out. It’s intense, but it’s intense for a reason, and everyone understands that.

“I was delighted to finish it, but there was a great sense of achievement too,” he adds. “I’ve lost a stone and a half in six weeks, which I’m delighted about. I’m getting a lot fitter, so that’s a good bonus to the training. One of the hidden benefits.”

He is optimistic about the rest of the training, regardless of its difficulty. “I’m sure the rest of the training will go well,” he says. “I go to paramedic training straight after this, so that is going to be a massive workload mentally, and that will be another challenge come September, but everything is going well so far. It’s tough, but you are not being shown anything that you can’t do, the instructors are giving you all the information and tools to go and do it. While it may be tough, it is all achievable.

“As long as the instructors see you giving 100%, they want to help you get things right, and I haven’t seen anybody here not giving it their all, not pulling their weight. The instructors see that, and they help everybody get to where they need to be.

“I wouldn’t be the most practical bloke, and I might find the paramedic side of things easier because of my background in studying for exams previously, and I might struggle with some of the practical stuff, but it is all very achievable, and it’s so far, so good.”

As with all of the recruits of Class 1/2019, it’s so far, so good.

The Power Of One

FF/P Neil McCabe talks to Adam Hyland about his latest venture into sustainability and a greener environment

Back in 2017, Firecall spoke to FF/P Neil McCabe about the incredible work he has done on environmental issues that started out with recycling projects at Kilbarrack Fire Station, and evolved into his innovative GreenPlan that has now become a global initiative that has seen his sustainability programme incorporated into all building planning within Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and organisations across the world, culminating in his meeting then-President Barack Obama at the White House.

Now, in the latest venture, Neil, serving with A Watch North Strand, has turned his attention to GROWN Forest, a project run as part of the GROWN ethical clothing business he runs with fellow DFB members Damian Bligh of D Watch Blanchardstown, and Stephen O’Reilly at D Watch, Dolphin’s Barn.


Featured on RTÉ’s Eco Eye in August, GROWN Forest represents the impact we can make together by preparing land and forests for future generations to enjoy, with a native tree planting project providing the chance for each individual to make a tangible difference to the environment and embrace ‘the power of one’.

It has become an exciting branch of the GROWN ethical clothing business, which grew out of a mission to reduce the amount of plastics making their way into Ireland’s waterways.

“We started off as a project to educate people on the amount of plastic waste that was in the ocean,” Neil explains. “Myself, Stephen and Damian swim a lot, and we found that every time we went for a swim we were coming out with a bag of plastic. We wanted to highlight this, because a lot of people don’t know that when you wash your clothes, microbeads are released because clothing has so much plastic and synthetic fibre in it. This makes its way to the ocean and has a terrible effect on marine life.

“We developed an organic t-shirt range that eventually expanded to other garments, all with the purpose of saying to people that there are other ways to buy clothing, to buy better clothing, that shouldn’t cost the earth, literally.”

He explains how the idea for a tree planting project came about. “I got the idea of planting a tree for every item of clothing we produced, regardless of whether it sold,” he says. “It has always been a lifelong dream for me to develop forestry and to grow the idea that ordinary people can have a tree planted for them because they bought an item of clothing.

“That idea took hold, and for the last two Black Fridays, we closed down the webpage and said to people that if you are online on Black Friday buying something with money you don’t have, for somebody who doesn’t really want something from you anyway, why not buy a native Irish tree instead, and have it planted in Ireland? We got such a good response from it that it became GROWN Forest, and I left the clothing side to the others to spearhead it.”

The idea is that the company has bought a collection of joined-up areas of land that have been legally protected so that no trees can be cut down within them, and gives the public the opportunity to buy their very own native Irish tree, enabling them to reduce their own carbon footprint. In many ways, it’s the perfect gift.

“The most amazing thing about what we are doing is knowing that the trees we plant will outlive us,” Neil says. “They won’t be cut down, so this is creating a legacy. You can buy a tree for any occasion – a birth, marriage or death – you pick the species of tree, and we have certain land belts where we plant the specific trees such as Irish oak or holly. The person gets a native tree put in the ground which is then barcoded and verified, and once it has been established, they can eventually go and see their own tree.”


With the world and how we live in it turned upside down by COVID-19, Neil feels that there has been a definite shift in mindsets towards new behaviours in consumerism and views on the environment.

“We live such a resource-easy life, but with COVID, people are looking at their own families, at their homes, and I believe that from what I have seen in 12 years of working in environmental matters that definitely in the last few months people have become more environmentally conscious, they can see the needless, fast-paced consumerism we had been used to, but also that we can get by with what we have, we don’t need such a resource-easy supply chain. A gift like a tree is far more meaningful than buying something commodity-based. It’s choosing to make a change. People are starting to say I want to be a part of that change, and that is what I am trying to achieve.”

Again, it all goes back to the individual realising that they can make a difference.

“Undoubtedly, there are still fossil fuels burning, there are still emissions, so many environmental issues still happening,” Neil says, “but generally, there has been a shift in the psyche where people have become more environmentally conscious, and they are realising that little changes all add up.”

Still in its infancy as a start-up, GROWN Forest is growing in popularity and support as not just a business but an ethos.

“What’s positive is that people are not just buying a tree, they are buying into what it is all about,” Neil agrees. “We get return customers and people who just want to be a part of what we are doing. They are buying into something completely different. It’s a full-blown legacy that will outlive all of us.”

This has led to welcome expansion, with new land recently acquired in Wicklow and plans in place to start planting trees in the coming weeks, and some people will get the chance to take part in this planting: something that is proving very popular.

“We get people down to the land to plant the trees, to get soil under their nails, which is a brilliant day out,” Neil explains. “People are completely outside of their natural environment, spade in hand, planting trees they didn’t even know the name of before, but now they know the different species, how to plant them, where they should grow, so it’s a really good day out. There is nothing as amazing as planting a big native Irish tree, and knowing it is growing, to be able to say I planted that, and to be able to look around and see 1,000 of them. It’s a really special feeling.

“A lot of people reach out to us asking if they can be involved, and we actually have to cull the numbers because there are too many, we ended up doing a lottery because so many people want to take part. But that’s a good complaint to have.”

Neil says that he has received a lot of positive feedback from his DFB colleagues, many of whom have already bought a tree for a loved one, and are getting the message out that you can make a difference by doing this.

“It’s a meaningful gift,” Neil says, “and a lot of DFB members are very interested in that. It all goes back to the power of one – what can you do? You can buy better, and if it doesn’t cost a fortune, and it’s native Irish, there’s a whole story to it. We also give a card that is embossed, environmentally friendly, hand-cut and printed, with the different tree species on them, so there is really nice, tangible element to the gift.”


Speaking about how proud he must be of his achievements with GROWN, Grown Forest, and the GreenPlan, Neil looks back on their humble beginnings.

“I’m coming up to my third year in North Strand – which is a terrific place to work – after 12 years in Kilbarrack,” he says. “I wanted a change, but Kilbarrack has been a big part of my life for so many years and I undertook a lot of different projects there for the DFB and Dublin City Council. Kilbarrack was the start of my GreenPlan career as a side project to my work as a FF/P, and that has grown incredibly over the years. We used to joke for years in the station that I would be on the ambulance one day and meeting the President of the United States the next, but then that happened in real life!

“I’m proud of that, but also of the impact my work has had on the DFB, and on fire brigades and other organisations all over the world. The GreenPlan is now being followed in 51 countries and in five languages. There are more than 100,000 applications of the GreenPlan in action globally, it’s a full-blown social enterprise with a real impact, creating a procedure-based system for green living. I could go on for hours talking about it, I am so proud of it. But it had a humble origin in Kilbarrack fire station, with no budget.”

It’s a huge achievement that the GreenPlan has been incorporated into the planning for all DFB builds, and those of organisations worldwide, and due to its importance, it has become the norm, which again is something Neil is very proud of.

“Every new build, every renovation and refurb, every upgrade, has to follow these procedures and they are set in stone – renewable technology, energy consumption, carbon emissions, waste water, impact on the environment. But we have the luxury now of being able to say everything has been set up and is in place, the procedures are still live, and we don’t have to worry about whether something will be done in the future because they are all part of the procedures and will be done automatically as part of the process. The groundwork is there already.

“We did that at Skerries retained station when that was built from scratch, it was all just part of the norm, and the best part is that it is a cultural, behavioural shift, where people are now saying that this is just part of the norm, this is how you go about any build or refurb. Finglas and Phibsboro were overhauled following the same process, and it has gone across the whole DFB and Dublin City Council now, as well as across the world.”


That global reach is also seen in another one of Neil’s concerns, Ashoka, of which he is an Irish Fellow and climate change advisor. The organisation emphasises and enables the ability for people to make real change in society.

“Ashoka is a huge part of my life and one of the things I am most proud of,” he tells me. “It means the word to me. I bring the GreenPlan to the table and use Ashoka as a global platform to bring its ethos around the world. It’s great to have an organisation like that which says we want to help and provide a solution to a problem, and for me, it’s an Irish-based solution to the global climate crisis, and it’s really rewarding to see it in action.”

This global platform led to what Neil describes as “the culmination of my work”, when last year, he and other Ashoka Fellows met in Madrid and drafted a climate response plan that would make its way to the UN where it has been taken on as an important programme for climate action.

“The event in Madrid was mind-blowing in terms of the impact, the people involved,” he says. “The top ten CEOs from the top ten companies in Spain were there, major business leaders coming together to talk about the climate crisis, the responses they could make. For me, that was the most fulfilling moment. I had spent years trying to explain that this was a crisis, that if the air isn’t clean, we can’t breathe, and if we can’t breathe, we will die. Climate change is as big as that. And to see that now I don’t have to do that kind of work anymore because climate change is being recognised as such a major issue, shows that 12 years haven’t been wasted. That’s so fulfilling.”

As with his journey from Kilbarrack to the White House a few years ago, Neil muses on the fact that he is able to talk about UN campaigns he has been involved with and addresses to global business leaders, while sitting in an ambulance in North Strand, but as with the GROWN Forest tree-planting project, great things come from humble beginnings.

Find out more about GROWN Forest at, about GROWN at, the GreenPlan at and Ashoka at

Station Profile B Watch North Strand

The crew of B Watch in North Strand take time out to talk about changing times and say goodbye to a veteran

The crew of B Watch North Strand were in flying form when I went to visit them on a rainy Friday evening in July, with jokes and banter flying from the moment I walked in, and more than one of the crew ready and waiting to have their picture taken. The good atmosphere was evident, and is something that each of the Officers I spoke to was keen to emphasise.

I was taken to the office by S/O Conor Keegan, who informed me that Sub Officer Derek Walsh, who he described as “the life and soul”, would talk me through what life is like at the station.

Both he and S/O Joe Kiernan sat down to share their thoughts. D/O Brian Murray was away, so S/O Kiernan was A/D/O for the night, and would later speak about his retirement, which would happen within the week.

There is high energy among the 19 FF/Ps and five officers, and according to Sub/Off Walsh, that is down to the good mix of youth and experience.

“There is a broad range of ages and experience here,” he tells me. “We go from 25 year men down to three year men and everything in between, so it is a quite varied group. We recently got three new recruits assigned to us and they add a bit of life to the station, because they are very active. The young lads are coming in and telling you about how they got on in their match at the weekend, whereas we are all past playing at this stage so we get a good bit of feed off them. It’s great to see because they add a bit of enthusiasm to the job.”

That enthusiasm was clear when we filed out to take a picture, but the current COVID-19 situation has brought in changes that have made camaraderie challenging at times, with mealtimes and gym sessions staggered and strict cleaning measures in place.


“When COVID started people were nervous, and everything just took a little more time to make sure we were safe. But then professionalism kicked in and everyone just got on with the job. The thing with the DFB is that you can’t be looking over your shoulder waiting for someone else to do something for you, there’s nobody else coming, you are it, so you’d better get used to being it, no matter what the circumstance.

“We can’t turn around and ring someone else to do the job, we are the people you ring, the buck stops with us. We just had to learn to deal with it, and if anything happens, we have the procedures in place.”


As well as the Tunnel Response Vehicle that keeps B Watch on their toes in terms of training and preparation, the specialist features of which S/O Kiernan pointed out after we took a group photograph, B Watch at North Strand also has two regular tenders and has in the past few months taken on another ambulance.

As well as covering a very large area, high-risk locations such as Dublin Port, the Port Tunnel and Croke Park are nearby, and added to this, the number of response vehicles here mean B Watch are kept busy.

“The DFB is community-based, and some stations might be busier than others,” S/O Kiernan tells me, “but we have the Port, and the Tunnel, which is highly specialised, and what we do is take care of the community with regards to the safety of these. We have a huge high-risk area to cover, and we need to always be fully prepared for this.”

Sub/Off Walsh adds: “Many other stations of our size would only have one ambulance, but every day we have four people on ambulances and four covering them, so we have eight people at any one time on them, and the ambulances are very busy, stretched to the limits. Having those two ambulances here means that the entire crew are kept very busy as a result.”


With the high-risk areas to cover, the skillsets of B Watch at North Strand are finely tuned and specialised, bringing increased responsibilities.

“Our skillsets are focused on the Tunnel and Dublin Port definitely,” Sub/Off Walsh says. “We have S/O David Lanigan here, which is very important because he is an expert on port operations. He has been on extensive courses to become an expert and we are very lucky to have him here because he knows Dublin Port inside out. We all know a lot about the Port ourselves, but David is excellent in his knowledge and is great in being able to tell us what we need to do.”

Regarding the Tunnel, S/O Kiernan points out that many North Strand personnel trained on Tunnel operations before the tunnel was even built.

“Every Watch would also do at least one exercise in the Port Tunnel,” he adds. “In order to do tunnel operations, you have to have done the training, it’s a course in itself. Some of the junior FF/Ps wouldn’t be able to turn out on the TRV yet, but they will be trained up when they are made permanent here.

Sub/Off Walsh points out that those not yet trained for Tunnel operations can still turn out on the regular appliances and go to the Tunnel. “There is still a job in the Tunnel for them,” he says. “They can go in, but only to certain parts and to do certain things. But there is a specific job that the majority of us at North Strand can do thanks to our training.”

With such responsibility, it is important to have that camaraderie mentioned earlier, but also to know when to be professional.

“There’s always a very good team effort,” S/O Kiernan says. “There’s a lot of banter and we all get on very well, but once we turn out it’s a different story, there’s a completely different management style where everybody follows instructions to the letter. Back at the station we can all go back to enjoying the banter between everybody from new crew members to officers, but everybody knows that when we turn out there is a different procedure to follow.”

Sub/Off Walsh agrees, and emphasises that the crew gets on very well thanks to the efforts they all put in to making B Watch feel like a close-knit community.


They organise an annual football match between themselves and Echo district, which Sub/Off Walsh says they are “glad to have the young lads for”, and many B Watch personnel are also very active members of the cycling and sea swimming clubs.

“Six or seven of us might go for a sea swim after a shift, which is good,” S/O Kiernan tells me. “We are very active in that way, it’s a good activity to do as a group, and we get on really well doing it.”

“S/O Kiernan is the treasurer of the cycling club,” Sub/Off Walsh adds, “and I’m an active member too, as are S/Os Keegan and Lanigan, and we regularly go out after a shift and go for a cycle.”

There is also an annual Christmas party for B Watch and their partners, as well as a trip away. “All of our partners know each other very well now, so we are a very close-knit community here on B Watch,” Sub/Off Walsh says.

“I could have retired two years ago,” he adds, “but I still enjoy coming to work. The lads are good when you ask them to work, and they are good to be around as well.”

S/O Kiernan adds: “If you ask any of the lads, they will tell you the same thing. They all enjoy coming into work and being around each other,” and Sub/Off Walsh agrees. “We have a very good attendance record, a very good sick record. We all help each other a lot, so there is a real family feel to our group.”

He adds: “We are also going to miss S/O Kiernan a lot. I’ve worked with him as a fireman in Kilbarrack and followed him here as an Officer, and I have had a great time working with him. He will be missed.”


With that, Sub/Off Walsh leaves me to talk to S/O Kiernan about his career and his approaching retirement. A big send off was held at the end of July, with a large number of colleagues gathering at a safe distance to bid him farewell, but when we spoke, he had one week left in the job.

The Kiernan family connection to the DFB is strong, with Joe’s great grandfather joining in 1888, followed by his grandfather, father, uncle, himself, and his brother Frank. His son, a retained firefighter in Skerries, is bound to follow his family into becoming a full-time member.

“We have five generations in the DFB,” he tells me, “so we are committed, to say the least.”

Having joined in 1987, S/O Kiernan spent most of his time in Kilbarrack, with some years as Station Officer in Dolphin’s Barn before returning north of the Liffey again for the last four years, and his vast experience in Tunnel operations has seen him run the Tunnel training courses for the DFB for the past ten years.

“In terms of my career, I can honestly say there were just two days I didn’t enjoy, and they both involved the deaths of colleagues. But other than that, it has been amazing.”

He has, in those 33 years, seen a lot of change, but some things, he says, never change.

“When you pare it all back down, the bells go off, you turn out, and you respond to whatever incident that is. You don’t know exactly what you are going out to, and what you face, but you just do your best. So, while things constantly change, in that respect, nothing has changed at all.”

I also ask how he feels about retiring.

“I’m glad and sad at the same time,” he tells me. “I’m 59 in March, so it’s time for me to stop. It’s also nice to go out on a high. I feel great, but now is the right time. I will certainly miss the job, but I’m looking forward to spending time with my family. I am looking forward to it, but with a little bit of sadness as well.”

When I ask what he will miss the most, S/O Kiernan answers immediately. “The camaraderie. The whole atmosphere of coming into work and being around a great bunch of people. There’s also the going out to an incident and seeing the great work being done, I will miss that.

“I’m still active in the cycling club and there’s all the do’s and events, so it’s not like you are here one day and then have no connection the next. I will still be meeting up regularly and enjoying the benefits of the lifelong friendships I have made. I’d like to thank all of the officers and the crew on B Watch, and in all of my other stations, for making my life very easy over the years. It’s been a pleasure working with them.”

The Covid Challenge

The DFB is providing its usual excellent service in a very unusual time, writes Adam Hyland.

The citizens of our city know how hard the Dublin Fire Brigade is working to keep us safe at this unprecedented time. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented significant challenges to the DFB, and at the time of writing the situation is constantly evolving, but what has remained the same is the commitment of the frontline personnel who are working to keep the general population safe, and the sharing of important information that has helped us help them in this endeavour.

While social distancing and restrictions on movement have resulted in fewer vehicles on our roads, the DFB has over the last few months had to respond to a large number of “everyday” call outs on top of the huge number of Corona virus-related cases.

At the end of March, with restrictions on movement in place, Station Officer Darren O’Connor spoke on Sean O’Rourke’s Today Show on RTÉ Radio One about the demands placed on the DFB when they are already stretched to capacity.

He also outlined to the public the ways in which the DFB is dealing with the situation at station level, providing much-needed reassurance. “Where normally crews would meet in the station at changeover, that has changed. The outgoing crew are segregated from the incoming crew so that there is no cross-contamination. We have an increased level of cleaning around the stations too,” S/O O’Connor explained.

“In terms of PPE, we have a logistics section that has set up a distribution centre to send out gear as and when it is needed. Crews are out there dealing with confirmed and suspected cases every day, so the workload for every crew is substantial.

“Our supply lines are critical. In terms of usage, it is very intensive because we are transporting suspected and confirmed cases, using two pairs of gloves, face shields, visors, goggles, aprons, and then cleaning solutions for the decontamination of the ambulances after contact with a case.”


S/O O’Connor also pointed out the great work being done to share information via the DFB’s social media platforms, which outlines not just the work being done, but also amplifies the message about the importance of the public staying at home.

This has included messages about hand hygiene and coughing etiquette, vital contact numbers, and advice on how to trace back contacts should a member of the public fall ill.

This message was backed up a few days later when Firefighter/Advanced Paramedic Eithne Scully appeared on The Late Late Show to emphasise the hard work being done by the DFB and the need for the public to follow Government guidelines.

As the lockdown continued, Firefighter/Advanced Paramedic Stephen Williams was on Newstalk’s Alive & Kicking show to again discuss the challenges facing frontline staff during the Covid-19 crisis, and to outline how the DFB responds to cases using the safest possible protocols.

“Work has changed dramatically for all of our personnel in a very short space of time,” FF/P Williams said. “We have to adjust our work practices both at the station and on the road, with social distancing in place. New patient assessments and decontamination procedures are in place for ambulances, and each case can be more time-consuming than normal, which puts pressure on an exceptionally busy service.”


Regarding the challenges of the pandemic, FF/P Williams said: “It’s difficult because of the frequency of the situation. We are used to crisis situations, but ordinarily we would have time between each one to digest it and refocus for the next one, but these are coming more frequently so there is very little down-time and we have to pull ourselves back together very quickly.

“The first challenge I noticed when we started responding to these cases was the increased levels of anxiety people are experiencing. Thankfully, the majority of people have had mild symptoms and reassurance and healthcare advice puts them at ease.

“The second challenge is trying to figure out and assess whether the patient has Covid-19 or if it could be something else such as a heart attack, or both. But the most difficult challenge in the tasks we are undertaking is ventilating patients – with our goal to keep the ventilation circuit as closed as possible, using a tight mask seal, advanced airways and viral filters, so it’s made a complex situation far more challenging, from making a working diagnosis to the PPE we have to wear and the treatment we provide.”

This information was another valuable aid for the public in understanding what the emergency services are experiencing, and to remind us that DFB members are risking their lives to save others (something which has been backed up by the Ireland On Call series on RTÉ every Tuesday and Thursday, featuring FF/Ps going about their increasingly busy work).


“I don’t think there is anyone in the country who hasn’t been affected in some way by the virus and we are no different,” FF/P Williams said. “A number of our colleagues have tested positive, but we are happy to say they have all recovered. This highlights the effects the virus is having on healthcare workers across the world. It really brings it home just how serious this can be.

“That being said, our firefighters and paramedics are a resilient and very professional group who are rising to the challenge of tackling the virus. Everyone is pulling together to support each other.

“We have been given additional ambulance capacity, our logistics department is working around the clock to get much-needed supplies to the crews, and we have daily communication bulletins keeping us up to date with the latest information because things can change daily, sometimes hourly.

“We also discuss cases with each other in order to gain a better understanding of what interventions are working, or if a particular procedure needs to be improved.”


With that positive message came another important one regarding the role of the DFB during the crisis. “Due to the constantly evolving nature of the crisis, there is some confusion as to what our ambulances can and cannot do, so it is good to clarify that,” FF/P Williams said. “We provide an emergency fire and ambulance service to the people of Dublin, so people should only ring 999 or 112 in an emergency. We cannot provide advice on Covid-19 or arrange for testing. This is done through your GP or by phoning the HSE hotline. Going to hospital is not a fast-track to being tested either, so let’s keep our ambulances for those that need them.”

Speaking to the Irish Times in mid-April, Chief Fire Officer Dennis Keeley outlined the challenges currently being faced, saying that up to 10% of DFB staff are unavailable for
duty due to COVID-19 illness or isolation measures.

“We have 11 people who have tested positive and 85 currently in self-isolation,” he told the newspaper. “It’s a fluid situation, because some of those who tested positive have recovered and are back in work, but we’re down about 8-10% of our staff.”

He emphasised that the DFB is still at “full operating capacity” due to staff depletion measures and some retired firefighters returning to service.

The second call centre established at the OBI has also helped in separating calls related to the virus from other emergency calls, and to allow staff to maintain greater distancing.

“I am very proud of the work Dublin Fire Brigade is carrying out, both our own firefighter paramedics and those responding to the 999 and 112 calls. It’s very challenging and everyone is working flat out,” CFO Keeley said.

There is far more work being done by the DFB at the moment than the public will ever know, but the sharing of information regarding how frontline personnel are handling the situation has been gratefully accepted. When normality resumes, I hope to cover these steps in more detail, but for now, all I can say is a huge thank you to the Dublin Fire Brigade on behalf of the public you serve so well.

Taking on the Welsh

A combined Irish Fire Services team played a strong Welsh Fire Service team in February, writes Keith Mason.

On 7 February, a strong contingent of players from the Dublin Fire Brigade Rugby Team travelled north to Instonians RFC in Belfast to join up with their NIFRS colleagues to play a match against the Welsh Fire Service.

Both of our teams provided more players than we could field on the day, so as Chairman and Coach I found it very tough to keep our contingent to 11, with quality, committed players not getting their game on this occasion.

Those that were selected did themselves proud, though. Veteran player Stephen Cunningham controlled the game well at out-half, with his experience invaluable in a combined team scenario where neither group were familiar with the other.

Kevin Conroy got over the line for the first try of the game, which was well deserved as he has been committed to the development of this new DFB team and has been excellent in the full-back position.

Our forwards combined well with their NIFRS colleagues, and there was some great ball carrying and support play from Cathal McNally, who consistently brings a level of aggression that the opposition found very difficult to deal with on this occasion.

Matt Crehan paired up very well with NIFRS second row and captain Peter Bradley, winning almost all of the Irish side’s lineouts and stealing a few opposition ones as well.

Stephen Weldon and David Sheridan battled hard in the back row against an experienced Welsh pack, and dogged determination from both limited the damage that could have come from the powerful Welsh scrum.

Brian Tyrell did struggle for pace a little at scrum-half, with slow passes from the base of the ruck putting his backs under pressure, but even though he is clearly not a scrum-half, he battled it out with his head held high. In fact, he held his head a little too high in the ruck and sustained an injury to his ear that required a few stitches! Brian doesn’t ask questions, and when tasked with playing at scrum-half he responded with a nod and a wink, and got on with it with the right attitude.

Stephen Breen and Brian Twamley have also been a great addition to this team. With poor weather conditions in Belfast on the day, the ball rarely made its way to the wing, but as always Stephen and Brian were very effective when it did, and were excellent in defence.

Alaric Collier came off the bench and made some good carries too. Committed to the sport and to ensuring this DFB team continues to grow, he puts his age to the back of his mind and gives 100% at all times.

The game, played in very difficult conditions, was very attritional. The pack worked tirelessly throughout and did well to provide a platform for the backs, who planned and developed some clever moves in the hour prior to the game.

The combined Irish Fire Services team were ahead for almost 70 minutes and had victory in our sights, but a late try for the Welsh, who seemed to find another gear in the closing quarter of the game, proved a tough pill to swallow for the whole team, and in the end the final score was 27-25 to Wales.

This Welsh team are a seasoned group who have been training and playing together for several years, so while for the game to finish the way it did was a little disappointing, the close final score showed that the team we selected is capable of competing against very tough sides.

The long-term plan is for this combined Irish Fire Services team to get together more regularly through training sessions and a few games each year. DFB RFC is continuing to grow, and more players are always welcome and needed. Anybody interested in joining the team should contact me at A Watch, Tallaght.

Special thanks must go to the travelling support from players who were not selected to play on the day, and from those who have historically supported the development of our team and have always enjoyed a trip away.

The team enjoyed the hospitality of the NIFRS team, and we look forward to meeting up with them again soon.

Thanks as always to the DFB Sports and Social Club for their support, Flashpoint Medical Systems for their continued support, and our sponsor Dubco Credit Union.


Working with the fire service at the international organisation seeking to discover what the universe is made of is a unique and exciting experience, Operational Leader Stephen Gunning tells Adam Hyland.

Scientists from all over the world continue to search for answers to the big questions relating to the fundamental physics of our universe using CERN’s unique range of particle accelerator facilities, but while they push the frontiers of science and technology, their work with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other unique pieces of equipment couldn’t be done safely without the presence of CERN Fire and Rescue Service.

While most people know about CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the LHC and the study of the particles that make up matter, few of us would think about the work being done above and below ground by what is probably the most unique fire service in the world.

Operational Leader Stephen Gunning, who had served for 30 years as a firefighter and senior manager in Scotland, was only too happy to find out about them. “I was leaving the Scottish Fire Service and looking to see what different opportunities were there,” he tells me. “I knew about CERN because I am interested in physics, and I saw that they were looking for officers, so I applied. They needed someone with my skills (in-depth experience in people and asset management, and fore and accident investigation and analysis) and the two things aligned. The opportunity to come and work here was fantastic, to get to learn about physics and see how experiments are produced in such a large international organisation.”


CERN’s workforce of over 2,500 staff members and approximately 14,000 users is hugely diverse, and the fire service mirrors this, with ten different nationalities forming the Group. While some fire services around Europe offer secondment, other firefighters, like Stephen, come because of the chance to work in such a unique environment. Contracts are on a five-year basis, with the option to extend that for another three years, and as Stephen says, “our set-up does present a few differences when you come from another fire service”.

He continues: “We don’t have ranks similar to the UK, for example, but we do fit into a similar structure. We have a non-uniformed manager who oversees our group from an organisation perspective, including how CERN operates, and we provide the strategic overview of how to operate the fire service. As one of three Operational Leaders, I am akin to a Senior Officer, then we have Officers, Watch Managers, Firefighters. Because there are only 48 firefighters forming four teams, they do need to change, and this is why we bring people in from different fire services, so we can interchange them based on what we need.”


There are three specialities within the team, Stephen tells me: The technical firefighters with core skills in radiation, chemicals and rope rescue, the safety control room firefighters whose skills are vital as they need to make a lot of immediate critical decisions based on the information they receive, and the ambulance crews, trained to technician level.

“CERN provides different levels of integration and brings people with different levels of experience into the organisation, with huge links to universities because of the mission of pushing international learning and research,” he tells me, “but when it comes to the fire service, you obviously can’t take people in who have no experience. You need to have a minimum of five years’ experience in a fire service, so you must already have the core skills. What you do develop are the specialist skills you need to work here. You bring your set of skills and use them in a completely new environment.”

That new environment includes over 50km of tunnels up to 140metres below ground, and requires unique pieces of equipment and strategic planning. As well as having two fire appliances and ambulances, the crews rely on specialised trolleys that can bring them deep into the tunnels quickly. “A lot of our equipment is stored on trolleys so we can take what we need at any given time,” Stephen tells me, “because we can’t carry all of the equipment at once – it won’t fit. We also strategically locate equipment around the laboratory complex, such as at the LHC area, but the specially-designed trolleys that transport us through the tunnels are a unique aspect to a unique environment. Firefighters who come here will
have never seen anything like this, unless they have worked in a specialist tunnel environment.”

He continues: “To be able to go into the experiment halls and caverns and to see what is being done, and thinking about how you would handle potential fires in these areas, that is unique.

“We also have quite a large area above ground, with lots of standard buildings, but we also have areas that have specialist equipment and radiation requirements. But the dominant risk is underground. You have to think about how you would handle an incident in a tunnel – and we have more than 50km of tunnels in a huge network – you go down a shaft, gain access to a tunnel, and travel along several kilometres underground just to get to a potential fire.”



The main call outs for the teams involve responding to fire alarms around the vast complex, which have to be investigated, and medical incidents, and not surprisingly given the enormous amount of energy being used, electrical fires. CERN has its own electrical network and receives 400,000 volts which is reduced and distributed to all of its sites, meaning “there is high voltage all over” as Stephen points out. The levels of radiation used, and the fact that CERN is probably the biggest cryogenics plant in the world and uses the most helium of any organisation (in order to cool the magnets in the accelerators to -271.3C), mean that the crews really need to be aware of the potential dangers.

“Generally, and thankfully, we don’t have a lot of large fires here,” Stephen says. “Any fires or safety hazards are identified quickly because of the number of technicians and controls in the experiments. This is because of the way in which the technology is running, the experiments have so much remote monitoring, so if they get a leak in cryogenics, or an electrical fault, they know immediately, because of the in-built safety systems necessary for conducting experiments on such a large scale. There is a very high level of perfection. There needs to be.”

As a result, understanding those risks and the topography of the area are crucial. “It’s really important for us to understand where the risks are in a place like this,” Stephen says. “You need to understand the physics of what is happening here, and know what to do if there is an incident, because the risks associated with the technologies are huge, and every firefighter has to have a very in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the circumstances.

“That is why one of the most important things we do on a daily basis is learn and revise the topography, where we are in the tunnel structure. We also do a lot of visitations to the various departments to keep everybody up to speed on fire safety and risk knowledge, because we have to make sure that incidents are prevented, rather than having to be dealt with.”


Stephen says there is a positive two-way sharing of knowledge within the organisation. “The physicists here all know the risks, the machines and experiments are so critical to them, so they are maintained to the highest level,” he tells me. “And scientists are generally open to education from us. There is a balance there, where we ask the questions about physics, and then we teach them about the fire safety and prevention necessary to run their experiments, and we come to an agreement on what is required. These experiments have to go ahead, but there has to be safety and an understanding of operational tactics from our end.”

This exchange of information sees the fire service play an integral role in the planning stage of CERN’s experiments. “We are constantly making sure the fire service here is involved from the early stages, and this is one of the key reasons for somebody like myself coming here,” says Stephen.

“You are able to be involved in the design of the building in which these major experiments are taking place, and that is such an exciting thing to be a part of. CERN works with our group to look at how they can incorporate our input into how we can tackle a fire in these new structures. Normally you have building regulations, and that is true for the most part, but there is no code on how to build complex and sometimes unique experimental structures and equipment, such as the LHC. You’ve got the tunnels and the distances between them, so you have to have some realisation of how you are going to tackle a fire. Fire engineering and tactical firefighting are coming together in the development of these new technologies. If we want something done in the design of the shaft, or want extra fire doors put in, there is an understanding of why that is needed.

“Of course, you will see from any photos of the CERN infrastructure that it is extremely difficult to have compartmentalisation, so you are not in an ideal world, because you can’t stop the accelerator, it has to be continuous, but we are looking at how we can improve and perfect fire prevention and fire management. Fire engineering is an emerging field in this respect: Looking at what the potential fire risks are in a building or structure design, and how we can use fire engineering modelling to assist us in developing our intravention plans.”

Being part of something so interesting is definitely one of the best aspects of the job for Stephen. “It is fascinating to me,” he admits. “You go into these experiment halls and see these huge experiments, but you also get to see how these things start, from very small experiments in a lab that just keep building to an enormous scale. It’s something very few firefighters in the world get to see.

“If people have the opportunity to come here, I would recommend they do. If you want to gain experience working with a major international organisation, a unique understanding of tunnels, radiation, cryogenics, this is the place. We don’t have a lot of operational activity, and that is a good thing. But we are here because of the risk of that.”

If a major incident were to occur, the CERN Fire and Rescue Service has a strong working relationship with the neighbouring fire services in France and Switzerland. “Our primary role in an incident is to give an initial assessment and to prevent it turning into anything significant,” Stephen says. “If we do get a large fire, our French and Swiss counterparts will supply whatever is needed, and to facilitate this we train regularly with these host states, both officers and firefighters.

“It takes up to five years to understand the physics and topography, and the structure of CERN, and to ask another fire service to come here and handle an incident would be difficult, it is too different. So, if we have a large incident the roles change, we oversee the strategic approach, providing the knowledge needed to handle the situation. And we all need that knowledge.

“CERN will handle the incident as much as it can, but is always able to call upon host countries for help. But as mentioned, one of the key roles for us is fast intervention, to resolve the incident quickly, control it, before it gets any bigger.”


The dynamic nature of the role is mirrored by the constant rate of development at CERN, and while Stephen has been there for two and a half years, he is still excited by events at the organisation.

“There are new experiments being done all the time,” Stephen says. “As we speak, there is a new tunnel being dug out, so the people here now will see this from the construction phase right up to a new experiment being put in place.

“Not every organisation could have as a requirement that you have to stay for at least five years and still get the level of interest we do, and in the next two years there will be a high level of recruitment. Many firefighters choose to bring their families over, because as part of the contract you need to live within the area, but not all do. Some travel back and forth on their time off, but many see it as a chance to have a new experience. They bring their family over, see another culture, put their children into school to learn another language, and get to work in a fascinating environment. It’s a great opportunity.

“Another unique thing about working at CERN is that we sit right on the border, so one minute you are working in France, the next you are in Switzerland, and we are underground within those two countries a lot of the time. Even some of our main buildings are half in France and half in Switzerland, so you cross borders walking across the lobby.”

While the environment may be unique, Stephen is also quick to point out that the job is still very much one of a firefighter. “No matter where you come from, firefighters essentially all do the same thing. Some countries emphasise different aspects of the job, but that is part of the uniqueness of CERN – you get to learn from other firefighters around Europe, and that is just another interesting aspect of working here.”