Man of fire: Captain Thomas Purcell

Thomas Purcell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Purcell

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

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

Innovation and upheaval

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

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

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

Thomas Purcell

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

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

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

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

End of an era

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

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

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

An unusual culprit

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

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

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



From Kilbarrack to the world

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

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

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

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

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

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Heading Stateside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving online

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

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

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

Back to earth

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

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

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

Firefighters without borders

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two generations of female firefighters in Honduras. Photo: FWB

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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Working on the frontline

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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New ties

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

Robin Blandford

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

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

Moving forward

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

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

First on the scene

First aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sobering lessons

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

First aid

The course includes both theoretical and practical aspects

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

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

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


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

Retired Members: Damien Fynes

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

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

A life recalled

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

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

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

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

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

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

Founding fathers

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

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

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

Damien Fynes

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

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

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

Entertaining the Russians

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

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

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

Retired Life

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

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