Colleagues pay tribute to retiring firefighter

March 4, 2013

By Bronagh Murphy

One of Crossmaglen’s longest serving firefighters was honoured at a special ceremony to mark his retirement in the Cross Square Hotel on Saturday night.

Gerard McMonagle was guest of honour at the event to acknowledge his outstanding service – spanning three decades – to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).

Family and friends joined colleagues from the Crossmaglen base, personnel from other fire stations and NIFRS officials to pay tribute to Gerard’s 28-year contribution to the fire service.

Barely out of his teens, Gerard joined the Fire Service as a volunteer firefighter in Crossmaglen in the early 1980’s.  Under the tutelage of sub-officer Eugene Donaghy, he quickly got to grips with his new career, though he describes his first few months as “being thrown in at the deep end”.

“Twenty-eight years ago myself and Brendan Hanratty were the first two trainee recruits from Crossmaglen to go to the Fire Service College in Belfast for training.  Being the first two from the station, and not knowing what to expect, it was quite an experience.  It was just like army training, very regimental, disciplined and intensive,” Gerard recalls.

“When I first started, we used to respond to the siren which was set off by Eugene Donaghy when the fire call came in.  It was about two years later when we were made retained firefighters and everyone was issued with a pager.  The difference of being a retained and a volunteer firefighter meant we got paid for the work we did and, with the pager, the turnout system improved as responses were better.  From the person who makes the call, down to us, became only seconds instead of minutes.”

Over the last three decades Gerard has seen significant advances within the Fire Service, particularly in personal safety, equipment and technology, with the biggest change in road traffic collision equipment.

“It has improved dramatically, it is just state-of-the-art compared to how it used to be, which means we can release people faster and more efficiently in road accidents,” he said.  “Equipment in general is better, and safer.”

Gerard has no problem recalling his first ever call-out: “It was a road traffic collision in Culloville. There was a young man trapped in the car and I’ll always remember the first approach- the sounds, the injuries- and then everything fell into place and I just got to work.  That was my introduction to the job, and from then on I never looked back.”

Having eagerly waited more than two weeks for his first callout, Gerard soon found himself in the thick of the action as the next day he attended a house fire at Silverbridge, followed by car bomb in the Square in Crossmaglen.

Reflecting on the highs and lows of his career, Gerard says there are some incidences that he will never forget.

“As the years went by, there have been happy times where we have succeeded in saving lives and property, and there has been some very sad times when lives have been lost.  All the major fires and loss of life, you’ll always remember them,” he said.

By his reckoning, Gerard has attended approximately 4,000 callouts during his tenure, which included fatal road accidents, animal rescues, gorse fires and helicopter crashes.  Although many events stand out in his memory, the one thing he is most proud of is his direct involvement in helping save lives.

“It’s good to walk down the street and meet someone who had been seriously injured in a road accident and is now back to full health, and to have been part of that recovery.  That for me is the greatest achievement.”

Gerard has always been keen to raise the bar and ten years ago he was promoted to Watch Commander of the Crossmaglen base with full responsibility for the entire crew, a position he aspired to.

“As you go through your training with the Fire Service, there are different courses you do and after completing all the courses you are put forward for driving,” Gerard explained.  “ I never wanted to drive the fire engine but I did want to be number one in the passenger seat.  I wanted to be the OIC [Officer in Charge], to be in charge of incidents.

“Over the last ten years from I became involved in managing the station, I kept pushing the team forward to achieve high standards because living in Crossmaglen means we are in a ‘dark zone’, which means it is twenty minutes before we have any help from neighbouring stations like Newtown or Newry.  So we are on our own for twenty minutes and we need to know everything there is to know.  We can’t relax with our training or our turn-outs, we have to be on top of our game all the time.  That is something I pushed for from the beginning and we are confident we can deal with all incidents.”

A significant part of a firefighter’s role nowadays is the education of people on fire safety.

“As the brigade progressed over the  years, it has changed.  There is a lot of fire safety work goes on now, such as school lectures on road traffic collisions and home safety checks.  All this has helped our station area to decrease the number of fire calls in the home and also road safety has become a major plus in the area.  We put this down to the hard work we have done through educating the young people in schools, along with ourselves, and getting involved in the road traffic collision roadshow involving the fire service and police.”

Outlining the introduction of the road traffic collision roadshow, Gerard explained: “I introduced the roadshow to St. Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen and that was the first time such an event happened here from the Troubles began.  And although it took quite a bit of organizing and pleading with senior management to make it happen, it was a huge success in the school.  I feel that has had a knock-on effect on our road safety plan, helping teenagers and young drivers to become more aware of road safety. We still appeal to young people to please obey the rules of the road.”

In recent years, Crossmaglen’s firefighters have become intrinsically involved in community life, particularly charity fundraising and social events, such as Halloween or facilitating Santa’s arrival in December.  This, Gerard says, is a significant part of the role of a community firefighter.

“After September 11th and the devastating loss of firefighers’ lives in America, we did our first fundraiser, a car wash on the Square.  It raised around £4,000 and this kick-started the fundraising events which we hold regularly to raise money for local charities.  The total raised in recent years now amounts to £40,000stg and €20,000,” he revealed.

A major recruitment drive for retained firefighters is currently underway.  Gerard says response has been very high, particularly in the Crossmaglen area, where applications have increased five-fold compared to previous recruitment drives.  This, he says, is due in part to the current economic climate and high unemployment, but also that people recognize the benefits of a career in the fire service.

Extolling the virtues of the job, he said; “It is a good career for young people to get involved in.  It’s a brilliant opportunity, it ticks every box in job satisfaction.  It will suit people working locally who are available to answer callouts with the permission of their employer.”

Paying tribute to his former mentor, he added: “I would like to commend Eugene Donaghy on his hard work and effort on getting a fire station in Crossmaglen and in starting these chain of events from which we have all benefitted now.  Eugene has been there so many years, men have retired and there is now a new generation of firefighters.  Next year will see a new management team and two new firefighters in Crossmaglen, and this is all thanks to Eugene.”

Business commitments have forced Gerard’s early retirement from the Fire Service but he is grateful for the opportunities afforded to him throughout the last 28 years and thanks his colleagues, past and present, for their dedication and support.

Gerard was presented with a number of gifts at his retirement function to mark his huge contribution to the Fire Service and particularly the community in Crossmaglen.