The life of a Retained Firefighter– local man talks about his “vocation”

February 18, 2013

By Christine Keighery

As part of a province wide campaign, Crossmaglen Fire Station recently launched a major recruitment drive for Retained (part-time) Firefighters. It hopes to recruit people who live and work within a five minute radius of Crossmaglen Fire Station to become Retained Firefighters and help protect their local community, with females and those from ethnic minority backgrounds being particularly encouraged to apply.

The Examiner caught up with one local Retained Firefighter to find out just what is involved in this crucial role in the community.  Crossmaglen man, Joseph Sweeney is one of ten local Retained Firefighters.  He joined the service five years ago at the age of twenty.  Here he gives us the low down on the job he loves and has come to see as a “vocation.”

How does your firefighting role impact on your day job?

“As part of the criteria for being a Retained Firefighter, I work within five minutes of Crossmaglen station so I’m able to get away when a call comes in without any problem. Obviously my boss understands my responsibilities as a firefighter and knows that I’m dealing with emergencies in the local area, so, of course, he’s fine about me having to drop everything and go when my alerter goes off.

“It’s essential when you’re applying for this role that you’re in a job which allows you to fully carry out your firefighting duties.  Most employers understand that only people who work in the local community are able to provide this emergency cover and that it’s an essential part of the community to have Retained Firefighters available.”

What is the impact on your day to day life while on call?

“Obviously an emergency can happen at any time so I never know when I’m going to have to respond to call.  I could be having dinner, just home from a day’s work, or maybe about to go out for the night! The alerter can go off at any time, so you need to have the commitment to prioritise, to know that you have to drop everything. For the 120 hours a week that I’m on call, I know that any part of my day can be interrupted by a call and an emergency situation can last minutes or hours so I’ve got to be prepared for that.

“It’s just part of the job and you do get paid holidays and 48 free hours every week so it is possible to separate your working life and your free time.  Although it’s a big commitment, I look at it much like a “vocation.” It’s something I love doing and am totally committed to.”

What level of training is involved?

“Training is a huge part of being a Retained Firefighter.  As we’re part-time, we need to keep up to date with new techniques and procedures. Our rural location means we could be the only fire station responding to an emergency and waiting for other stations to arrive, so our skills and abilities need to be completely up to date to provide the best service possible.

“Things have changed dramatically from when I started 5 years ago.  Equipment and techniques are constantly upgraded so training allows you to keep up to speed with that.”

Do you have to be physically fit to apply?

“Realistically, you need to be quite physically fit to carry out this job and complete all the training.

“It can be very physically demanding – you’re wearing a heavy fire suit in all types of conditions and carrying heavy equipment.  The range of incidents we attend means you need to be physically prepared for any situation.  For example, we may be responding to a gorse fire on a mountain on a summer’s day so we’ll be hauling hose and other equipment over rough terrain wearing full safety gear.  You never know when you’re going to have to run into action. You could be lifting a ladder or operating extremely heavy cutting equipment at a road traffic accident, so a certain level of fitness is essential.

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service have a fitness policy in place and firefighters are required to complete a fitness test twice a year.  In addition, firestations are provided with fitness equipment such as treadmills and exercise bikes to help maintain our physical fitness.”

Why would you recommend becoming a Retained Firefighter?

“I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s a very rewarding job and you can get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people in the community. As a Retained Firefighter, responding to incidents in your own community means you may know the people you’re helping.  There’s great satisfaction in that.

“Even responding to simple incidents and providing reassurance is very rewarding as is providing fire safety information to householders and schools.

“It’s especially rewarding to see positive results from the safety initiatives we carry out. Incidents of house fires are decreasing and road deaths are down too.  We work hard at our cross border road safety initiative and our home fire safety checks so the best part of the job is seeing those messages taken on board.  It certainly gives you a personal sense of achievement and job satisfaction to see such progress in the community.

“There’s also a great sense of camaraderie amongst the crew and colleagues become friends.  Teamwork is essential and whenever we’ve all attended a difficult call or feel we’ve really helped someone, it’s a great morale booster for us all.

“There are also plenty of opportunities within the fire service, with retained Firefighters also eligible for promotion. Training is paramount in this role and there is a wealth of courses and exam opportunities for those who seek to go further and the fire service actively encourages us all to progress and achieve.

“In the current climate, it’s great to know that, with commitment and dedication, the role of a Retained Firefighter can open up so many opportunities. It’s an important and meaningful role which becomes so much part of your life, it’s hard to imagine not having an alerter clicked on to your belt.  Being a Retained Firefighter is a way of life for me now. It’s a job I love so much, I’d do it for free!