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Foyle Search and Rescue: City of Derry’s guardian angels

Every single day since 1993, an army of volunteers has stood ready to respond to an emergency on the River Foyle

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INVALUABLE: The Foyle Search and Rescue launch a search of the River Foyle in 2018

INVALUABLE: The Foyle Search and Rescue launch a search of the River Foyle in 2018

Michael Cooper

INVALUABLE: The Foyle Search and Rescue launch a search of the River Foyle in 2018

Thousands of people in Northern Ireland owe their lives to the members of Foyle Search and Rescue service who picked up our 999 Hero award at the Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards in 2019.

The team, made up of 94 dedicated volunteers, has continued its life-saving mission throughout the pandemic even though Covid rules meant the service was severely restricted for the first time in its 28-year history.

Emergency response teams have kept going during the past year - although weekend patrols on the banks and bridges of the River Foyle had to be suspended for 10 months.

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The charity’s chairman Pat Carlin

The charity’s chairman Pat Carlin

PA

The charity’s chairman Pat Carlin

While the full service has resumed since February, chairman Pat Carlin says thankfully there were fewer distress calls in the past year due to lockdown.

He says: "Our emergency response teams were still active throughout the pandemic but we had fewer call-outs because people were not out and about.

"For the safety of our teams we have had to introduce a decontamination process as we can't afford to take any chances. On the very first day of lockdown last March, we had a call-out to a person who happened to be positive for Covid.

"Volunteers have since been trained to treat everyone with the highest level of caution and they are going out now with full protective equipment, including two sets of gloves, a mask and face shields.

"On return they go through a decontamination process, changing their clothes outside and washing down as soon as they get home."

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Some of his colleagues during another search

Some of his colleagues during another search

Some of his colleagues during another search

Rescue figures for the crew during 2020 were dramatically down on previous years.

The team responded to 76 call-outs for people deemed "distressed at the river" compared to 232 in 2019.

Twenty-four people were rescued alive from the river in 2020 compared to 28 in 2019 and 95 people were removed from the railings or river's edge compared to 189 the previous year.

Tragically, however, there were more bodies recovered from the river. Seven people were removed during 2020, compared to three in 2019.

After the quietest year in its history, the team is now bracing itself for one of its busiest as society suffers from the mental toll of the pandemic.

Now back to full strength, while the service is expecting to be busier than ever, it is also struggling with a huge funding deficit because of Covid.

Pat says: "We lost a lot of fundraising events during lockdown which is the same for most charities and we couldn't do our normal collections.

"Even though we are substantially down in our funding, the local community has been very good to us and without them we wouldn't be able to do what we do."

It was the local community who showed their gratitude by nominating the team for our award in 2019.

One person to nominate, and whose life was among the 4,000 saved by the service over the years, wrote: "I have been mentally unwell for 22 years now and have lost so many friends to taking their lives. Part of my illness is attempting to take my own life. I have attempted it on numerous occasions. Foyle Search and Rescue is an amazing organisation. They patrol the two bridges in Derry and due to their rapid response have saved mine and so many other lives."

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INSPIRATIONAL: Winners of the 999 Hero in 2019, Foyle Search & Rescue’s Stephen Twells, Carole McAleer and Stephen Tinsley with CEO of sponsor CRASH Services, Jonathan McKeown (far right), and presenters Tim McGarry (second right) and Tommy Cannon (third left)

INSPIRATIONAL: Winners of the 999 Hero in 2019, Foyle Search & Rescue’s Stephen Twells, Carole McAleer and Stephen Tinsley with CEO of sponsor CRASH Services, Jonathan McKeown (far right), and presenters Tim McGarry (second right) and Tommy Cannon (third left)

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

INSPIRATIONAL: Winners of the 999 Hero in 2019, Foyle Search & Rescue’s Stephen Twells, Carole McAleer and Stephen Tinsley with CEO of sponsor CRASH Services, Jonathan McKeown (far right), and presenters Tim McGarry (second right) and Tommy Cannon (third left)

And winning our award proved a huge boost to these selfless men and women who volunteer their time at all hours of the day and night.

As we seek your nominations for heroes for this year's Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Ulster Bank, Pat admits the win was a massive surprise.

"To get the award was very humbling and the fact that we are not paid and are all volunteers, it was tremendous to get that level of recognition," he says.

"We have the Sunday Life article on the wall so that it is the first thing everyone sees when they come into our training centre."

Referred to in their home city as "the angels of Derry", the team formed in 1993 after an alarming number of drownings in the River Foyle.

Pat explains the background: "A local gentleman Billy Garnon's brother sadly went missing in 1993 and they searched for 16 days before finding him in the river.

"At that time there were 28 lives lost in the river in 18 months and it was a bit of an epidemic. Billy started a professional organisation and Foyle Search and Rescue was born."

A volunteer-based charity, it has become an invaluable force in preventing suicide in the city.

The aim has always been to reduce the number of people who die through drowning in the River Foyle - one of the coldest and fastest-flowing rivers in Europe.

All volunteers are from the local community and selflessly give up their personal time every week to help those in distress.

Teams patrol the river on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 9.30pm until 3am - identified peak times of need - engaging with people, maintaining lifebelts and saving lives.

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A member of Foyle Search and Rescue uses a Drone

A member of Foyle Search and Rescue uses a Drone

A member of Foyle Search and Rescue uses a Drone

There is also an emergency response pager team, made up of 15 dedicated volunteers who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for incidents and emergencies outside of patrol times.

This team is paged by the PSNI to respond to potential suicide attempts and incidents in and around the river.

It also acts as a body recovery team who search for any person missing in the river and recover the body - always with the greatest dignity. The charity also takes an active role in suicide prevention by providing an education programme to local schools, workplaces and community groups.

It supports families through the North West Bereaved by Suicide Support Group. Pat adds: "We are like one big family and we take care of our own mental health. It is very pleasing when you save lives but then you also have to deal with the aftermath when someone dies. We do desensitising training and prepare our volunteers as much as we can.

"After an incident we will have a debrief session and we have facilities available to us if people need to talk to someone. We are a very close team and we support each other."

Nominations will be received up until Monday, June 14. To nominate someone couldn't be easier. Simply email your nominations to us at spiritofniawards@sundaylife.co.uk or visit www.sundaylife.co.uk/spiritofni and tell us the story of the person who has made a difference.

The 11 awards categories

Unsung hero (Sponsored by The Boulevard)

Someone whose great deed or deeds have previously gone unnoticed, but who will have made a major contribution to your life or to your community.

Overcoming adversity

Someone who has overcome huge personal challenges, whether it is dealing with illness or disability or overcoming problems.

Spirit of youth (Sponsored by Better)

Someone under the age of 18 who should be recognised for their special achievements.

999 hero

A member of the emergency services who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in their job.

Charity champion

Someone who has worked tirelessly for a charity or as a fundraiser for many years.

Spirit of health (Sponsored by Henry Brothers Ltd)

A medical professional who has gone the extra mile to improve the health and well-being of their patients.

Spirit of education

This award recognises a truly inspirational teacher who has helped children and young people fulfil their potential.

Caring spirit award (Sponsored by Power NI)

A person, young or old, who has dedicated their time to caring for a friend or family member.

Spirit of sport (Sponsored by The Boulevard)

Someone who has made an exceptional contribution to local sport over a number of years.

Climate Hero (Sponsored by Concentrix)

Seeks to recognise an individual or community group which has gone the extra mile to care for and protect the local environment.

Special recognition award

Someone who the judges feel represents the Spirit of Northern Ireland by selflessly serving others and being an inspiration to us all.


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