Burning passion that lights the way

May 10, 2011

Interview with a Fire Fighter

By Paul Malone

What do you want to be when you grow up? Ask most children that question and the majority of them will say, “I want to be a fire-fighter!” Sitting around all day with your friends and then sliding down a pole into a big red truck with flashing blue lights. Sounds great right? But the reality is quite different to the childhood dreams and perceptions.

If we cast our minds back to September 11th 2001, there are some images which are etched indelibly into our minds; aeroplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, the twin towers collapsing, people jumping from windows to a certain death and of course the images of a city under the greatest terrorist attack it has ever experienced.

However, probably the most enduring image from that infamous day is that of the brave fire fighters. While many fled from the two buildings in a desperate bid for survival, groups of fire-fighters defied rational thinking by running towards the danger.

Calm and collected, camera footage showed the brave men and women of the New York Fire Department rushing into the two huge sky scrapers. Many of those men and women never came back out of the World Trade Center alive, with over 300 sacrificing their lives trying to save others.

This is the reality of being a fireman. One minute you could be dealing with a small fire or a hoax call, the next you could be at the top of smoke filled buildings at the centre of terrorist attacks, trying to remain composed enough to save people’s lives.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th may be a dramatic example, but fire fighters throughout the world put their lives at risk daily, with very little appreciation.

The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland for over 30 years from 1969 to 1998 also saw the Fire Brigade carry out operations similar to that of September 11th, with bombs and collapsed buildings a frequent sight. More recently, the gorse fires that have engulfed the Mourne Mountains and South Armagh are indicative of the major task a fire fighter faces in his career. This is a job that personifies courage.

This week we caught up with Gerard McMonagle, the Watch Commander in Crossmaglen.  Gerry has been in the Fire and Rescue Service for 25 years and spoke to the Examiner about his career:

Paul: What made you choose this as a career path? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Gerard: It was a spur of the moment thing, I knew I wanted to help the community and with the encouragement of Eugene Donaghy I applied. Eugene’s role in training as well as encouraging members of our unit of NIFRS made Crossmaglen’s fire service such a dedicated unit in NIFRS. It is also a job that keeps me fit and active and helps those in need in the local community.

Paul: Do you find your job adventurous? If so, what makes it adventurous?

Gerard: Yes it is definitely adventurous. Every fire call we attend, we don’t know what to expect. When we are en route we all expect the worst case scenario.

Paul: What does a typical day in the life of a fireman involve?

Gerard: Crossmaglen is manned by retained fire-fighters, who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are always ready to answer fire calls.  On a typical day we would go about our home and family routine as normal and then respond when necessary to fire calls. We would arrive at the station as quickly as possible and be briefed on what has happened.  But when we are not fighting fires life goes on as normal, we set our days out no matter where we are so we can be ready quickly to respond to an emergency.  For example, my shoes and trousers will be ready and waiting beside my bed when I’m ready to go to sleep.

Paul: The Mourne Mountains have been burning as gorse fires have spread, how difficult has this been for the Fire Brigade?

Gerard: It has been extremely difficult. Over the past two weeks alone, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has attended 1,977 gorse fires. More locally, my crew have attended fires in Slieve Gullion, the Bernish, Flagstaff, Anduff Mountain, Shanro forest in Forkill…the list is endless!

Paul: Your department must be stretched to the limit?

Gerard: It was disappointing that most of the fires over the past two weeks were started deliberately. This is putting a huge strain on the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue resources. Thankfully though, every call made to us was attended to. Contingency measures have been put in place to ensure that emergency cover is maintained across Northern Ireland.

Paul: Each call you get, you don’t know what is in store for you. Do you be frightened in the job very often?

Gerard: Frightened? No. We put our lives at risk to save other people’s lives and property. We don’t know what to expect until we arrive on the scene. We do our job with dedication and professionalism and these high standards are a direct result of our training, which never stops.

Paul: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Gerard: I get great job satisfaction, especially when saving property. Also, we have rescued people at road traffic collisions. When we meet the people out and about months or years later after they have recovered they’re always full of gratitude. So job satisfaction and the team work are two of my favourite things.

Paul: Does your job often interfere with your personal life in ways that you wished that it didn’t?

Gerard: Yes it definitely does. For instance, we may have planned to go away with our wives or friends but when your alerter sounds you have to drop everything and forget about your plans for the day and attend the station immediately. Our friends and wives understand when this happens. We have no regrets though; we are dedicated to our jobs.

Paul: Have you ever been injured on the job?

Gerard: Thankfully not.

Paul: When things go right it must be such a rewarding job?

Gerard: Yes, I get great job satisfaction.  It is very rewarding for me as Watch Commander to oversee my crew carry out all their tasks with such great professionalism and responsibility.

Paul: What is the most difficult part of the job?

Gerard: Attending incidents where there is serious injury or loss of life is particularly challenging. But all fire crews are close knit teams, this helps us deal with incidents.

Paul: Have you any advice to anyone interested in joining the Fire Brigade?

Gerard: I would definitely recommend a career in the Fire and Rescue Service. You get job satisfaction and constantly challenge yourself physically and mentally.

Paul: If you could describe your job in one word, what would that one word be?

Gerard: One word… Rewarding.

In relations to the recent fires, I would like to commend my crew and all the NIFRS stations that our station has worked with in the past two weeks for their hard work and dedication while they were engaged in fire-fighting operations to protect life, property and the environment.  They performed magnificently despite long periods of duty and I am extremely proud of their efforts.

Also, I’d like to express gratitude to all the people in the countryside who made us tea and gave us food during the gorse fires. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to appeal to the public during the summer months to be cautious while in the countryside and to ensure they extinguish cigarettes and matches properly to prevent fires.