Ahead of International Firefighters Day on May 4, we talk to two dedicated members of the Fire and Rescue Service about what the job means to them
For longstanding fireman Michael Harkin (44), it’s the sense of camaraderie among his colleagues he enjoys most.
“Strong professional relationships and lifelong friendships are formed within the Fire and Rescue Service,” the Co Down man says.
“I know within all firefighters there is a real desire to help people and make things better. Whenever they are responding to a difficult incident, I love how everyone comes together with professionalism and willingness to help.”
In the job for 20 years, he is now station commander of the specialist rescue team at Central Fire Station in Belfast.
“Being a firefighter appeals to so many people, I was no different,” he explains. “I was delighted to get through the process and start a career that was so interesting and full of opportunities.
“There are four watches with eight officers and 22 firefighters on the specialist rescue team.
“Our main responsibilities involve responding to and training for urban search and rescue incidents; flood response and water rescues; high-angle rope rescue incidents, such as crane or cliff rescues; and firefighter emergency response, which involves putting in place extra control measures at large scale incidents, or incidents involving confined spaces, for firefighter safety.
“I work closely with our partner agencies in the PSNI, Ambulance, Coastguard, and the search and rescue organisations in the voluntary sector.
“I’m also heavily involved working nationally with other Fire and Rescue Services ensuring we have the same equipment and standards of training as those in England, Scotland and Wales.”
If a loved one expresses concern about Michael’s safety doing what he does for a living, he reassures them not to worry.
“A huge part of what we do is training and preparing for fires and rescue incidents. Everything we do involves putting in place safety measures, from the clothes we wear, equipment we use and training we receive, which means we can reduce the risk at most of the incidents we attend,” he adds.
“Experience, practice and judgment play a huge part in what we do, and hopefully with these in place everyone will stay safe.”
A main perception of the role of a firefighter is that it involves running into burning buildings saving lives.
He explains: “The reality is, yes — but in a highly calculated manner.
“Our firefighters and officers are highly trained in fire behaviour, moving in smoke and darkness whilst wearing breathing apparatus, and in incident management.
“At each incident we ask ourselves the question: ‘Does the benefit outweigh the risk?’ And if the answer is yes, then we will do whatever it takes. So, we will take risks to save others.”
International Firefighters Day acknowledges the work of those who dedicate their all to the protection of life and property.
Sometimes that dedication is in the form of countless hours volunteered over many years, in others it is many selfless years working in the job. In all cases it can involve the ultimate sacrifice of a firefighter’s life.
“The acknowledgement means a lot. I have dedicated everything in recent years to my job and helping others,” he says.
“But what is most important is remembering the individuals and the families of those that have given the ultimate sacrifice, especially the firefighters from within our own service.
“On those occasions they put the safety of others before their own safety, and that is certainly worth commemorating.”
Michael says the nature of the role has altered considerably during his 20 years and he’s extremely grateful to the wide network of colleagues who help him and his team to continue to do their job.
“The role of the firefighter has changed so much over recent years,” he says.
“We attend a wide range of incidents, from fires in buildings, wildfires, hazardous material incidents, road traffic collisions, floods, water rescues, collapsed buildings, and rope rescues.
“We have so much support from our regional control centre and the support staff, which means we can attend these incidents with the most up-to-date information, equipment and training, which increases firefighter and community safety.”
‘It’s the best job in the world’
“Firefighting enables me to have an extended family — we all work together and look out for each other,” says Dungiven woman Laura Mullan (31).
After 13 years of being an on-call firefighter, Laura went full-time just over a year ago.
“I remember seeing the jobs advertised in the newspaper and I thought it’s something different, rewarding and exciting, so I thought I would give it a go and apply,” Laura explains.
“I currently work as a crew commander in Magherafelt Fire Station and a wholetime firefighter in Crescent Link Fire Station, Derry.
“In my job, no two days are the same.
“We have a daily routine that involves equipment checks, drills, and community fire safety duties. We gather risk critical information, where we visit local premises to familiarise crews with sites, and we also respond to emergency calls.
“We attend a wide range of calls, for example animal rescue, water rescue, Hazmat (hazardous materials) calls such as a gas leak, automatic fire alarms and road traffic collisions.”
Laura is passionate about being a firefighter and feels fulfilled by the role. She strives to maintain her fitness levels to do her job as well as she can.
“It’s exciting, I can genuinely say I love my job, it’s very rewarding to be able to help people,” she says.
“If anyone was thinking of joining the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, I would highly recommend it — it’s the best job in the world.
“We have a fitness test every six months. I think this alone encourages me to stay fit and active.
“Normally when I’m on shift I have gym time scheduled every day, which will usually be circuits with a mix of weights and cardio.
“Outside of the Fire Service, I play ladies Gaelic football for my club in Magherafelt.”
When it comes to tackling serious blazes, Laura says her training helps to keep her safe, as does working as part of a team.
“It’s natural for my loved ones to worry, but they know what training I have completed to help keep me safe and that we work as a team,” she says.
“There is equipment, and we have procedures in place, so I can do this in the safest way possible.
“Some of these things include a breathing apparatus, which allows me to breathe oxygen in irrespirable atmospheres; and thermal images cameras, which aids me to detect heat in a smoke-filled room, which could be the fire itself or a casualty.”
On the significance of International Firefighters Day, Laura says: “It makes me realise that, yes, we do risk our lives a lot to protect saveable life and property, but I am also rewarded by being able to help my community.
“On this day we can take a moment to honour and remember the brothers and sisters who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”