On a sunny day, B Watch at Phibsboro show Adam Hyland that life is never dull.
With social distancing still very much on everyone’s minds, it was fortunate that I got to visit B Watch Phibsboro on a clear and sunny November day, which meant it was possible to meet and talk to the crew in the yard.
S/O Gregg Hannon, who has been with B Watch here since 2017 following time at HQ and Swords, welcomes me in and we sit by the station’s Garden of Reflection to talk about life at the station.
“I like it here,” he is quick to tell me. “We are lucky at this station that we have enough space to be able to do our drills and exercises under current circumstances. And we are kept busy with a large variety of callouts.”
With two fire appliances, a rescue tender, an ambulance and a D/O’s vehicle, the station handles calls from the north inner city out to west Dublin, with fires and RTCs the main incidents.
With rivers nearby, there is also an SRT team with a floating platform on the rescue tenders as well as a specialist High Line team, who are busy doing a drill in the tower behind us as we speak.
“Ollie Dunne, Alan Moore and Peter Conroy are up there now,” S/O Hannon tells me. “The High Line entails a lot of work in terms of training and upkeep of skills. It’s not just about the skills each individual has, but also how everybody works as a team, so on weekends when we are not on calls out, we do a simulated rescue.”
The high-density areas surrounding Phibsboro also mean that B Watch are kept busy, and there have been many changes that keep the crew on their toes.
“There has been a massive development in the last two years in Grangegorman, with a lot of student accommodation, while Stoneybatter is always a vibrant, growing area, and there has been a lot of change in terms of traffic flow,” S/O Hannon tells me. “That requires constant familiarisation, having to go out and assess whether there are any problems, and that all takes time.”
The biggest change in recent times, however, is of course that brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even with COVID, there is still a lot of building and development around us,” S/O Hannon tells me. “While there aren’t as many students at the moment due to restrictions, that in itself can present a challenge because buildings are designed to be lived in. There is a risk in having so many unoccupied or semi-occupied buildings. In some ways an empty building can be more dangerous than an occupied one.
“The prep and after care with the ambulance also takes longer. People have to gown up, but what tends to take longer is the aftermath, the proper cleaning. But it just has to be done, and the procedures brought in ensure that we have reduced the time it is taking as much as possible.
“Looking at the latest figures, DFB will go beyond the 100,000 mark for ambulance callouts this year soon, and it is only the start of November, so when you consider the amount of ambulances we have, it shows how busy the people on the ambulance are, and at our station it’s no different. You really have to take your hat off to them, and not only the people on the ambulance but those who train them. We are lucky to have an advanced paramedic here in Niall O’Reilly.”
I ask how life within the station has been affected by COVID-19, and S/O Hannon is quick to point out that the emphasis on following protocols and procedures is helping to keep B Watch as safe as possible.
“Guidance has come from management, and there has been a lot of communication about it,” he says. “We run a system to keep pods in place, so whoever is on one engine or ambulance is on that for the entire shift, whoever is on the ambulance doesn’t do the kitchen, etc, trying to minimise the risks for everybody. We are so aware of everything we need to do before, during and after call outs, we are very diligent, so tuned in to the precautions we have to take.
“Everybody comes to work, does what they have to do, and there is a great sense of trust and belief that if we follow all procedures and relevant precautions, we are doing everything we can do to protect ourselves.
“Morale has been good. We have a sense of normality because we can still come into work and do our job, and there is always a good sense of camaraderie. There is some difference in that obviously we can’t sit around with each other, but we are busy enough so there is never that much downtime anyway. What we tend to do is let drills go on longer, and that becomes your socialising. As a result, there is still a lot of craic between all of us.”
This is clear when we are joined by FF/Ps Cathal Roche, Darragh Martin and Gareth Carberry, who immediately start up the banter. When I ask them how they are managing to keep morale high, FF/P Roche answers immediately: “We slag the crap out of each other.”
“Our most senior crew member is Cathal, who joined 25 years ago, while our youngest was brought in from the Class of 2019,” S/O Hannon points out between the jokes. “We have seen a few changes in the last couple of years. Our two Sub-Officers got promoted so they have left us, and we have had a few recruits come in. Because of the size of the place you have 17 people on duty, including officers and D/O Colm Kershaw, so there will always be a bit of turnover. But we have been very lucky with the new crew members.
“It’s great to have such enthusiastic young FF/Ps come in who are prepared to learn. The three most recent have been great additions to the team, and you need to have that, both for the work and the slagging. The older guys tend to feed off their enthusiasm.”
“Behind all the slagging, these new members are all very good people as well,” FF/P Roche points out. “Personally, I still look forward to coming into work. They are a great team. Best place I ever worked.
“There is great variety here too,” he adds. “There are so many different call outs in a wide area, so it keeps you interested all the time.”
As the newest member, FF/P Carberry, who FF/P Roche describes as “a local boy done good” because he hails from Cabra, agrees with the sentiment and says he thoroughly enjoys working with this Watch.
“It was really easy to settle in here, thanks to the lads,” he says. “I spent a few months on the ambulance at first, which was hard because I wasn’t spending a lot of time with them, and I am quite shy, but after that I got to know the lads better and they are always looking after me here. It was great to start getting my hands dirty on the engines and doing a bit of work with the other lads, and from there it was easy to fit in and be one of the team. I really enjoy it.”
S/O Hannon adds: “You can see that we are a busy station. The engines have been in and out all morning, so it is a great station to get that hands-on experience all firefighters need, and everyone here enjoys the job and gets along really well.”
As we stand in the yard, talk turns to the Garden of Reflection behind us, which for B Watch is an important part of the station. Some of the crew, including FF/P Martin, worked with B Watch member Leon Rafferty, whose passing in 2013 initiated its construction, and the group reflect on the fact that his anniversary is approaching in December.
“Leon was part of the clan here, and every year we give a gift to his wife and family,” FF/P Martin tells me. “We go up to the cemetery on his anniversary, and remember him in our Garden, but also all other firefighters who died on the job or who have passed away after retiring.”
“The idea to have a place where you could remember passed DFB members, or just sit and gather your thoughts was important,’ FF/P Roche adds. “We also remember other DFB members such as Ian Frodo McCormack, and most days after dinner a few of the team will come out here.”
FF/P Martin suddenly cracks a joke that brings laughter all round and lifts the mood at the drop of a hat. The sense of high morale and great camaraderie is once more brought to the fore as the group head off to test the Hi-Ab, focused on their work but still finding time to “slag the crap out of each other”.
With the annual Open Day cancelled this year, I ask S/O Hannon about the sense of community spirit that is always evident in Phibsboro, and how COVID may have affected it.
“The community spirit here is still very good,” he says, “and while we can’t have our Open Day, the team are all still very proactive in community events. We still get people coming up to the station and looking in the windows, and we are happy to talk to them at a safe distance and tell them that when all of this is over, they are very welcome to come back and we will show them around.
“The engagement and positivity from the community is still there, and it makes it much easier to keep the morale up when you know you are appreciated.
“You’ve got to put things in perspective and look at the big picture. Yes, we are under pressure with the COVID situation, you have to be extra cautious, but that is what we signed up to do, and yes there is the added stress of not wanting to bring home an infection, but that’s nothing compared to the stress involved for people who have lost their job during the pandemic – that’s real pressure.”
The banter and laughing in the yard continues, showing that while there is pressure involved with working here, B Watch have the morale and camaraderie to deal with it with a smile on their faces.