Fire Fighting in Northern Ireland
For most Americans, the notion of fighting fire in Northern Ireland brings to mind a nightmarish, network-news vision: A group of people on a Belfast street; an overturned and burning car; and a “pump” arriving, its two-tone European siren unable to shield it from a barrage of bricks and stones.
The image is that of a heroic group seemingly unable to do more than respond to one incident of civil disturbance after another. That picture is, in the opinion of those who head the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, not accurate.
Chief Fire Officer George Morrison, who heads the brigade which protects all 5239 square miles of Northern Ireland, explains that while in 1969 the “troubles” accounted for 18 to 20 percent of the brigade’s workload, the figure for 1981 stands at 1 to 2 percent. In fact, the leading causes of fire in Northern Ireland sound familiar to American fire fighters: cooking fires, home heating equipment, chimneys, children and matches, and smokers’ carelessness.
How the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade deals with its fire problem is a study in organization and communications. Organized on the British fire service model, the brigade is a mixture of full-time and on-call “retained” fire fighters who staff 57 stations. Fifty-one of those stations are staffed by retained fire fighters. Stations in the cities of Belfast and Londonderry are staffed by full-time crews.
—photos by the author.
The responsibility for coordinating the emergency responses of the 57 stations falls to Brigade Control, the dispatch facility located in the headquarters basement in an old family mansion in Lisburn, several miles south of Belfast. The headquarters site was selected largely for communications purposes. Strategically placed repeaters allow the Lisburn dispatchers to radio units and fire stations throughout Northern Ireland.
The country is on a “999” system where emergency calls are answered with “Emergency, which service, please?”, and then transferred to the appropriate agency. Brigade Control staff handle about 40 calls per day.
Given the problems that the brigade faces, internal communication is a high priority. One way that the brigade informs its members is 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 board that oversees fire protection for the country. The journal goes to each brigade member.
Fire prevention plays a major role in the brigade’s activities. Unlike in many American departments, the fire prevention staff of the brigade is decentralized. A small staff at headquarters deals with policy, planning, code development and training, but the bulk of direct fire prevention activities is handled by staffs of uniformed and civilian personnel in the five divisions of the brigade. Divisions are suppression/ prevention districts considerably larger than American battalions.
Charged with a statutory duty to handle certification of premises for fire safety, the brigade’s fire prevention staff does extensive plans review for new construction and, in addition, develops exit plans for places of public assembly and multiple-occupancy structures. The exit plans are distributed for posting in the involved buildings, and copies are forwarded to suppression crews assigned to respond to the buildings in the event of fire.
Records on computer
A recently installed data processing system keeps track of brigade records and fire incidence data. Rather than attempt to train staff for such specialized functions as data processing, the brigade has made a practice of hiring outside expertise to develop such programs, a move that has proven cost-effective in the long run.
An examination of fire in Northern Ireland reveals that while many of the same things that cause fire in America keep Ulster burning, there are some differences. For example, arson for profit is not a serious problem.
The troubles, despite accounting for a relatively small percentage of the brigade’s activity, have created some unique problems and inventive solutions. Senior Divisional Officer Tom Douglas, a third-generation fire fighter who joined the Belfast Fire Brigade before its 1973 amalgamation with the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, explains that the practice of bricking up windows in abandoned Belfast rowhouses (to deny their use to would-be snipers) creates almost shipboard fire conditions when fire breaks out in the structures.
The old, slick tile roofs make vertical ventilation difficult, and the common practice of terrorists using the derelict structures to store arsenals of explosives, ammunition and fuel for petrol bombs has forced the brigade’s fire fighters to rely more heavily on exterior fire attack in recent years than in previous, calmer times.
Difficult forcible entry
Driving 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’s manufacturers and shipbuilders, such as armored gates, fences, barbed wire and bomb screens make forcible entry difficult when after-hours fires occur.
While no longer a serious problem, early on in the troubles, fire officials found it often necessary to educate British troops serving in Northern Ireland about fire brigade operations to avoid having military vehicles parked at scenes where “pumps” and “turntable ladders,” as they call them, belonged.
In the area of community relations, “neutrality has been the keynote of our success,” according to Deputy Chief Fire Officer Sidney Pollock. The fire brigade is not political. “We have problems with tbe kiddies stoning us occasionally,” says Pollock, “but we go there, do the job and pack up.”
One does not find in Northern Ireland’s media a great deal of boasting about “good stops” on fire stemming from civil disorder. Morrison explains that the brigade maintains a low profile with the media. “We underplay our action so as not to arouse the terrorists,” he said.
The brigade’s apparatus reflects its community relations policies. When it became obvious earlier that the windshields of pumps and ladders were irresistible targets for rocks and bottles in certain areas, a decision was made to armor them. The technique of covering windows with wire mesh was considered and dismissed in favor of placing acrylic plastic screens behind strategic windows. The net effect, points out Morrison, is that from the outside fire apparatus looks as it always has, maintaining an appearance of normalcy. In addition, all brigade vehicles are plainly marked as such to avoid their being mistaken for police or military vehicles. In the case of staff vehicles, solid color cars with small rotating blue beacons on their roofs, a triangular illuminated sign placed below the beacon identifies them as brigade units, day or night.
If the problems that beset Northern Ireland are old, the fire brigade’s approach to the problems it faces is progressive. While the turnout coats look traditional, they are made of Nomex. The standard 1¾ and 2¾ -inch hoses are of a new, lightweight plastic-jacketed rubber type. And the increasing amount of plastics found in fires has brought increasing sophistication in breathing apparatus practices. Behavioral fire cause factors are being met with public education programs such as a program on children and matches that the brigade has used for the last two years.
The universal increase in hazardous materials incidents is reflected in training programs and the brigade’s interest in regulating the transport of such substances. For whatever other problems Northern Ireland may have, its fire problem is in competent hands.