Fighting fires in Northern Ireland


Fighting fires in Northern Ireland


For most Americans, the notion of fighting fires in Northern Ireland conjures up a nightmarish view of network news: a group of people on a street in Belfast; a overturned car on fire; and a “pump” arriving, his two-tone European siren unable to protect him from a barrage of bricks and stones.

The picture is of a heroic group seemingly unable to do more than respond to one incident of civil unrest after another. This image is, in the opinion of those in charge of the firefighters of Northern Ireland, inaccurate.


Fire Chief George Morrison, who heads the brigade protecting Northern Ireland’s 5,239 square miles, says that in 1969 “problems” made up 18-20% of the brigade’s workload, the figure for 1981 is 1 to 2%. . In fact, the main causes of fires in Northern Ireland seem familiar to American firefighters: kitchen fires, home heating equipment, fireplaces, children and matches, and neglect by smokers.

The way firefighters in Northern Ireland deal with their fire problem is a study on organization and communications. Organized on the model of the British fire service, the brigade is a mixture of full-time “retained” firefighters and duty officers who employ 57 posts. Fifty-one of these stations have permanent firefighters. The stations in the cities of Belfast and Londonderry have full-time staff.

The B Division fire station exemplifies modern design.  Firefighters are currently replacing many older fire stations - photos by the author.

– photos of the author.

The responsibility for coordinating the emergency response of the 57 stations lies with Brigade Control, the dispatch facility located in the basement of the head office in a former family mansion in Lisburn, several miles south of Belfast. The headquarters site was chosen largely for communication purposes. Strategically placed repeaters allow Lisburn dispatchers to travel to radio units and fire stations across Northern Ireland.

The country uses a “999” system where emergency calls are handled by “Urgency, what service, please?” And then transferred to the appropriate agency. The brigade control personnel handle around 40 calls per day.

Internal communications

Considering the issues facing the brigade, internal communication is a high priority. The brigade informs its members through its quarterly journal, “Nine Fire”, which reports on the professional and social activities of the brigade and the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland, the 17-member council that oversees fire protection for the country. . The journal is given to each member of the brigade.

Fire prevention plays a major role in the activities of the brigade. Unlike many US departments, the brigade’s fire prevention personnel are decentralized. A small staff at headquarters takes care of policy, planning, code development and training, but most of the direct fire prevention activities are handled by uniformed and civilian personnel in the five divisions of the brigade. Divisions are considerably larger suppression / prevention districts than US battalions.

Charged with a legal obligation to manage the certification of premises for fire safety, the fire prevention staff of the brigade conduct a thorough review of the plans for new construction and, in addition, develop exit plans for the places of fire. public gathering and multi-occupation structures. The exit plans are distributed for display in the buildings concerned, and copies are sent to the intervention teams responsible for intervening in the buildings in the event of a fire.

Computer recordings

A newly installed data processing system keeps track of brigade records and fire incidence data. Rather than trying to train staff for such specialized functions as data processing, the brigade has made a habit of hiring outside expertise to develop such programs, an approach that has proven to be profitable in the long run. .

A review of the fires in Northern Ireland reveals that while many of the same things that cause fires in America keep Ulster on fire, there are a few differences. For example, for-profit arson is not a serious problem.

The unrest, although representing a relatively small percentage of brigade activity, created unique problems and inventive solutions. Senior Division Officer Tom Douglas, a third generation firefighter who joined the Belfast Fire Brigade before it merged in 1973 with the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, explains that the practice of walling windows in Belfast’s abandoned row houses (to prohibit their use by would-be snipers) creates almost fire conditions on board ships when a fire breaks out in the structures.

The old, smooth tiled roofs make vertical ventilation difficult, and the common practice of terrorists using abandoned structures to store arsenals of explosives, ammunition, and fuel for gasoline bombs has forced the brigade’s firefighters to move out. rely more on external fire attacks in recent years. than in previous times, quieter.

Difficult forced entry

Walking through the industrial sections of “B” Division, which he commands, Douglas is quick to point out that the built-in security measures taken by Belfast shipbuilders and builders, such as armored doors, fences, barbed wire and bomb screens make entry forced. difficile when fires occur after hours.

Although this was no longer a serious problem, early in the unrest firefighters often found it necessary to educate British troops serving in Northern Ireland on firefighter operations in order to prevent military vehicles be parked on stages where “pumps” and “rotating ladders” they call them, belonged.

In the area of ​​community relations, “neutrality has been the key to our success,” said Deputy Fire Chief Sidney Pollock. Firefighters are not political. “We have issues with the kids stoning us every now and then,” says Pollock, “but we go there, get the job done and pack our bags. “

There is not much bragging about the “good stops” of fire resulting from civil unrest in the media in Northern Ireland. Morrison explains that the brigade is keeping a low profile to the media. “We are minimizing our action so as not to awaken the terrorists,” he said.

Additional protection

The apparatus of the brigade reflects its policy of community relations. When it became apparent earlier that the windshields of pumps and ladders were irresistible targets for rocks and bottles in certain areas, it was decided to armor them. The technique of covering windows with metal mesh was considered and discarded in favor of installing acrylic plastic screens behind strategic windows. The net effect, Morrison points out, is that, when viewed from the outside, the fire apparatus looks like it always has been, maintaining an appearance of normalcy. In addition, all brigade vehicles are clearly marked as such to prevent them from being confused with police or military vehicles. In the case of staff vehicles, solid-colored cars with small rotating blue beacons on the roof, a triangular light panel placed under the beacon identifies them as brigade units, day or night.

Progressive approach

While the problems plaguing Northern Ireland are long-standing, the firefighters’ approach to the problems it faces is gradual. Although the participation coats look traditional, they are made of Nomex. Standard 1¾ and 2¾ inch hoses are a new type of lightweight plastic coated rubber. And the increasing amount of plastics found in fires has brought increasing sophistication in breathing apparatus practices. Behavioral factors causing the fires are taken into account by public education programs such as a children and games program that the brigade has used for the past two years.

The universal increase in hazardous materials incidents is reflected in training programs and the brigade’s interest in regulating the transport of these substances. Whatever other problems Northern Ireland may have, its fire problem is in capable hands.