Phibsborough fire station sits on what used to be a Church of Ireland graveyard. “In the mid 1980s, they sold it to Dublin County Council. All the graves were taken away. There’s a big old sycamore tree on the far corner of the yard, and there’s a high wall around it and it was filled in. It’s a memorial garden now for a couple of comrades that killed themselves,” says veteran firefighter Niall Kinsella. It’s an uncomfortable truth for many people but firefighters are witnesses to harrowing moments.
Niall has that classic Dublin wit that hits you before you can even form a comeback. His thirty-seven years with the Dublin Fire Brigade has no doubt honed it to an art-form, “nowadays we are well supported and counselling is provided but in a lot of ways we do our own counseling. We’re always slagging each other. Somebody does something stupid at a fire. You just never live it down, you know? Never. It’s just banter!”
A Career in Fire Versus the Sea
It could’ve been a very different career for Niall, he trained as an electronic engineer and was a radio officer at sea. When the opportunity to try out for the Dublin Fire Brigade came up he snatched it. “It was the 1980s, there were very few jobs around. And then suddenly I had a choice. I tossed the coin and here I am. Best thing I ever did. I heard a guy saying on the radio the other day, ‘If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.’ Spot on.” Niall has a boyish playfulness but his eyes can turn steely if it’s time to get serious.
The modern training for fire fighting is intense as Niall shares, “we have three recruits, they’re in for eight months. They then go back out and do a paramedic course. That’s another six months, with two years shadowed. They have to do a colossal amount of hours. 800 hours on the ambulance, supervised. We also have a lot of advanced paramedics, they do two years in college.” But it’s not for everyone, “some go before the training is over and some go as soon as the training is over. We’ve had three guys that had just gone operational and decided, ‘this is not for me.’ And they were right to get out because if you can’t hack it in the first couple of months you’ll never hack it. You’re going to see some terrible sights. It’s not nice picking up a head,” he says with a droll flourish.
The Rush & Terror
There is something invigorating about fires Niall says, “say there’s a fire in an underground car park. Five cars on fire. It’s like going into hell. But the force, the adrenaline, is amazing. It’s terrifying, but amazing.” That’s not to say that he is blasé about the risks. He recounts one time when things could of went horribly wrong for him. “It happened a long time ago in one of the Georgian houses on Mountjoy Square. There was a fire on the top floor, a caretaker was living in the attic so he was trapped. We had to go up in breathing apparatus sets, but the building collapsed. Four of us were trapped in the building. You never forget that. You’re only a second away from something going wrong. The guy I was with, his hands got terribly burnt because he fell into a fire. He came back to work but he was on light duty staff for fifteen years, he never got over it. I was lucky. I had got a couple of cuts and bruises I got dirt in my lungs, that’s all. I got over it. But you never know, disaster is only a second away.”
His motto is never to bring work home, he just switches off. His work crew are the people that he will talk to about it as he said earlier. But there is one memory that will always be raw. “We delivered a baby in the Phoenix Park. It had a prolapsed cord so straight away we knew this was bad. Tragically the baby died in the back of the ambulance, the parents were screaming as they were so emotional. It wasn’t pleasant. At the time one of my daughter’s was about six months old. So that stuck. That’s vivid. Probably always will be vivid.”
Some Ungrateful Members of the Public
The physical and verbal abuse that some of our country’s emergency staff suffer has been covered extensively in Irish media. However, chatting with Niall made it more real as he recounted specific incidents of some very ungrateful people. “When you go into a building with a fire you keep your hands to the wall and go around the room. We’re attached together by a cord. You search an arc. Recently we had a situation with two college guys, locked* outta their heads, they had set their house on fire but they were fast asleep. I just happened to circle that section of the room, did an arc and I felt a foot on a bed. I grabbed him by the foot and pulled him out of the house. Bumped his head all the way out but he’s still alive.” But instead of a thank you for saving his life or an apology for putting the firefighters lives at risk he, “then accused us of robbing his wallet. He said we took his wallet when we were taking him out! When in reality he probably left it in the pub before he got home because he was locked!”
A Career Dedicated To Others
“I can stay out till I’m sixty-six but it’s a crazy age to still be working here. I know the lads would look after me. If I wanted to stay, they’d make sure I don’t get hurt. If I got to sixty they wouldn’t let me go into fires. But I think sixty is enough. I’m fifty-eight now,” says Niall with a wink. He’s a fit man that does not look his age or act it!
These men and women see distressing things everyday and as a result they have the closeness of a family unit. They know how fragile life is and Niall believes in seizing the day and squeezing as much from it as he can because after darkness there always comes light, “delivering babies is always amazing when it goes right. I’ve successful deliver about five, I’ve been lucky,” he smiles.
*locked is an Irish colloquialism for drunk