In June, my wife, Diana, and I took an extended cruise for our wedding anniversary. One stop along the way was in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, about 60 miles from Belfast. Coleraine is the namesake city of our own Colerain Township, Ohio, where I serve with the Colerain Township Department of Fire and EMS.
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the founding of Colerain Township by John Dunlap, who originally came to the United States from Coleraine, Ireland. Dunlap was an engineer and surveyor who traveled to the Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War and settled in Ohio, building Fort Coleraine along the Great Miami River just north of its confluence with the Ohio River, now forming the western border of our own Colerain Township. In 1794, a little over 45 square miles of this area surveyed by John Dunlap was designated by the territorial governor as Colerain Township.
Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is a busy commercial hub on the River Bann, which is navigable to many ocean-going vessels. It is also a destination area for tourists and sport enthusiasts for golf, tennis and fishing. It is the governing region for several seacoast cities and, along with Coleraine University, has a seasonal increase in population that adds to the responses of the local fire and ambulance agencies.
The Coleraine area may also be known to “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts, as it was the setting for the popular, but now concluded, HBO series. That locale within Coleraine has alone sparked a huge influx of tourists with specially chartered tours that take GOT fans to landmarks and filming locations.
Colerain ambassadors in Coleraine
As part of our trip, Diana and I brought with us a proclamation from the governing body of the Colerain Township Board of Trustees in Ohio to the Coleraine Council, recently rebranded as the Causeway and Glens Council in Northern Ireland. The proclamation acknowledged the accomplishments of their native son, John Dunlap, and his contribution in helping to found and name our home community.
All of this may seem superfluous, but when we travel, I try to set aside some time to meet with the local fire service. I was also somewhat acquainted with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) because of an exchange program that we developed between the NIFRS and the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) that began while I was the state fire marshal.
The idea of an exchange initiated after an international conference of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) held in Ireland. At the time, the NIFRS was interested in gaining experience in the field of fire investigations, and after the September 11 attacks, we at the Ohio SFMO were looking to improve the safety of fire personnel and the tactics used during potential terrorist incidents. The program was a success for both agencies and remained in effect for several years.
Prior to our travel, I contacted the NIFRS Headquarters in Belfast and asked if I could stop by the Coleraine fire station during our visit. I wanted to learn more about what had happened with their fire service in the ensuing years.
I was put in contact with Coleraine District Commander John Bacon who agreed to meet with me. The Coleraine District geographically encompasses approximately one-third of the NIFRS “northern” response area and is headquartered in the town of Portrush on the coast of Northern Ireland.
Finding similarities across the ocean
Like most of the fire service in the United Kingdom, the NIFRS uses a combination of career and paid part-time or on-call firefighters. This combination is similar to that used by my own department where the predominant category is composed of career firefighters, but there are part-time firefighters to augment the number of personnel needed to fully staff each shift.
Commander Bacon was more than hospitable and generous with his time as we looked at both regular fire appliances (apparatus) and specialty units, including one designed to respond to flooding incidents and fight wildlands fires in the hills, marshes and bogs that run along several ocean side areas. That unit sits roughly double the height of an ordinary fire engine and is equipped with four-wheel drive for extensive off-road use. We also looked at one of the several rescue pumpers specifically designed for extrications on the major highways in Northern Ireland that crisscross the Coleraine district.
Perhaps most interesting were our discussions on the similarities of current issues faced both in Coleraine and Colerain. Among those were our efforts in community risk reduction (CRR), including programs providing the free installation of smoke detectors (particularly for those still living without this protection) as well as the ongoing improvements in firefighter safety through enhanced tactics, breathing apparatus and PPE.
Commander Bacon also discussed the ongoing preparations for the upcoming UK Open Golf Tournament that will utilize a combined fire, police and EMS command post with dedicated personnel and units on scene during the tournament to handle the influx in celebrities and tourists, along with those anticipated additional needs for emergency services.
The commander and I also share a history in both training and recruitment, so a discussion on both of these topics brought out a number of shared experiences.
In the end, we agreed that our departments and the challenges we face are more alike than ever, and that sharing ideas and experiences had led to a stronger understanding that both the fire service and our current issues were universal, not just local in scope.
Strengthening the global bond
I came away from our visit with a sense that individuals in the fire service have a stronger bond now more than ever and that, when possible and not disruptive, it is an enlightening experience to visit with firefighters when traveling, whether across the country or around the world.
The trip left me feeling invigorated, knowing that we all face similar challenges while trying to provide the best fire and emergency services for our citizens, no matter wherever in the world that might be.