Barry McDowell is the District Commander for the Derry area for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.
The Derry District includes Crescent Link, Northland, Dungiven and Limavady. About 180 people work for Barry throughout the District.
He has worked for the fire service for 25 years. He covered the 24 hour shift on Christmas Day this year. This involved providing fire cover from home, responding to any emergencies that come through the pager. There was also be a ‘watch’ team at the Station on Christmas Day.
Barry has worked many other Christmas Days throughout his time with the Fire Service.
“You have to be a very open-minded person and have a lot of integrity to do this job because you are faced with so many different scenarios. When you join the Fire Service you realise that you’re there to serve the community and when it’s your turn to work you just have to embrace it.
“Ultimately you’re there to protect the community so you need to be able to say, well today’s my day to work and make the most of it.
“Christmas is basically business as usual for us. The bottom line is we’re here 24 hours a day 7 days a week. It’s a sense of duty we have to the community. You know when you’re signing up that on public or bank holidays etc you have to step up to the mark.
“You’re there knowing that on that specific day, if anything was to happen to anybody, should it be a house fire or road traffic collision, it takes a special person to be able to go and help that person in that dramatic situation, especially at Christmas time.
“Knowing we’re there to do that, it makes you very proud.
“In 2011 when there was extreme weather, pipes burst and there was a lot of flooding. That was an extremely busy period. I think I attended 15 calls on Christmas Day which is very high for one day.
“It all depends on the conditions. I always hope I don’t have go to one call on Christmas Day, but you just never know.
“On Christmas Day two years ago I got a call to a simple thing, it was a fire which happened in a house, people left the room with a candle on and the candle caught the curtains and the living room caught fire. The living room was badly damaged but we responded very quickly, extinguished the fire and the person’s home wasn’t completely destroyed because of it.
“How traumatic would that be to happen any day of the year, never mind Christmas?”
Is there anything he feels he is missing out on when he works at Christmas?
“Well if I get called out I could be away for twenty minutes or half an hour, but I also could be away for half a day or a full day. You always have that worry about when you go out the door you could be away for hours.
“You would obviously miss your family during that time. Everyone wants their family around them at Christmas but it’s your community you’re serving.
“In Christmas 2011 we had just sat down to Christmas dinner and I got the call and I was away for over two hours. That’s something nobody wants to see, anyone getting up to leave especially during the meal time. But there’s no such thing as saying, ‘No, I have to have my dinner, I can’t not go on that call.’
“They all understand, they’re bigger now and they’ve gone through it with me my whole career. The fire service is one big family, not only within the work place - your actual family becomes part of it as well.”
Barry wanted to highlight some points in the NIFRS Christmas Safety Appeal, “While it’s usually nice to see people at Christmas, in our line of work it’s often not so nice. I would ask people to think about their fire safety at home, as well as road safety to make sure we are not interrupting their festivities this year. During severe and prolonged weather periods, and over Christmas we would ask people to remain indoors as much as possible.
“Things that can create fire hazards are used more often in the home at this time of year - candles, fairy lights, portable heaters and fires that have not been lit for some time. Such additional hazards resulted in fire fighters attending 54 accidental house fires over the Christmas period last year. Sometimes people can become complacent about fire safety during Christmas.
“I’d be urging everyone to keep themselves and their families’ safe by becoming extra vigilant. Ensure you have a bedtime routine, check smoke alarms are working and make visitors and your own families aware of the escape plan.”