When the sun shines, there are few nicer places in Derry than the area around the Foyle Search and Rescue base, overlooking the city. With the river glistening, it’s easy to forget the fact that the same stretch of water has been the home of countless personal tragedies.
Those tragedies are the very reason for the existence of the charity which is currently marking its twentieth year.
Stephen Twells has been there for 12 of those 20 years. The Derry man started as a volunteer after deciding he wanted to contribute something outside of his working life as an employee of the Boots chain.
“Foyle Search and Rescue was doing their bucket appeal and a few guys called at my door,” says Stephen.
“I’d always wanted to do something more worthwhile outside of work so I set about finding out how to become a volunteer.”
Soon after completing his volunteer training, Stephen went on his first night on patrol along the river, which proved to be a baptism of fire.
“On my very first night, a fella went into the river from the Craigavon Bridge. That scared me and it made me realise just how important a job Foyle Search and Rescue do.”
Stephen wasn’t put off by the initial tough call and turned up for volunteering as expected in the days after that first river rescue.
“Rescuing people from the water and body recovery never gets any easier, but it’s what we do and you have to get used to it, and you do get used to it. Some incidents stay with you more than others and it can be traumatic and stressful.”
Easing that trauma, Stephen says, are the staff and up to 80 volunteers at the organisation who are a vital support to one another.
“The best thing about the job here are the people, there’s a great sense of teamwork,” he says.
“We have to be able to talk to one another about some of the things we’ve seen on the job because we’re all in a position to understand how tough it is at times. The other side of it is that there are a lot of nights where we don’t get a callout but we still have to be here in the building so on the good nights where there isn’t an emergency, we have to be able to talk to one another! In that sense, there is a family atmosphere here and we’ve built up close friendships over the years.”
The nature of the work carried out by the Prehen based charity means that some volunteers last longer than others, as Stephen explains.
“Sometimes I think people come along expecting it to be like Baywatch and when we have nights where nothing much happens, they’re a bit put off. Then of course we have people who find out it’s just not for them because of the situations we’re encountering.”
As well as the emergency response situation, Foyle Search and Rescue also deals with one to one encounters on the city’s bridges, and volunteers often find themselves in the position of counsellor where someone may be considering ending their life,
“That’s another part of what we do,” says Stephen.
“Our volunteers have to be able to listen to and talk to people who find themselves at the lowest points in their lives. When we see someone along the water, that person will often not have spoken to anyone else about the way they’re feeling. We also do outreach work where we go out and speak to schools about suicide and the issues around the work we do so that’s another element of what the organisation does.”
One of the reasons why Foyle Search and Rescue is regarded as one of the most highly thought of voluntary organisations in the North West is because it has a multi-faceted approach to an issue which has either directly or indirectly impacted on thousands of people across the city. This is also why donations from the public have not yet felt the sharp impact of the recession.
Having been treasurer for ten years until giving up the role to take on the job as vice chair in recent weeks, Stephen’s all too aware of the financial mechanics of the organisation, the unwavering generosity of the Derry public.
“It takes £100,000 a year to run things here and we get £40,000 statutory funding. £25,000 of that comes from the Western Health and Social Care Trust and £15,000 from Derry City Council. It’s not hard to see that outside of that, we have a lot of fundraising to do to make up what we actually need. I can honestly say we continue to be overwhelmed with the generosity of people here who still put their hands in their pockets and dig deep for us.
“People in the city understand the work we do and they’ve always stood by us and without them, we wouldn’t be able to operate, it’s as simple as that.”
Looking ahead in his new role, the new vice chairman says there are challenges ahead if the life saving organisation is going to be able to continue to carry out the work it does.
“To be able to operate properly, and keep doing what we do, we’re hoping to be able to expand our base here. We also want to improve the capability of our volunteers and look at dealing with incidents outside the Foyle area. We’ve had to retrain our volunteers recently because new statutory guidelines introduced meant that we would not have been able to assist with floods and other major emergencies so we had to bring our training up to the new level required to help in those kinds of situations. All that training costs money and we absolutely have to keep up with the best practices.
“It’s our long term vision to be able to improve facilities here but there’s a lot to do before we get there.”
The organisation is also busier since the opening of Derry’s Peace Bridge and with the number of additional events scheduled for the city, and in particular along the river during 2013.
“We had a busy time last week with the Big Weekend and now we have the Return of Colmcille and a number of other events which will run during the course of the year,” says Stephen.
In the meantime, the man at the helm of Foyle Search and Rescue is settling into his new role.
“It’s just about getting on with the job now,” he says.
That river isn’t going anywhere in the meantime.