Colm McGuigan thought the day he retired would be call-free but, after 40 years as a fireman, he knew only too well the sound of the siren was never far away.
Just 20 minutes before he officially retired on Monday, a 999 call came in at 8.40am about an accident involving a bus carrying 21 children and a van near Claudy.
For a moment, Colm thought the lads were winding him up but, within minutes, he mobilised his colleagues and was on his way to the scene.
“It’s ironic because I started in Dungiven and I finished 40 and a half years later with a crew from Dungiven,” says Colm.
A career in the Service was inevitable. The 61-year-old grew up yards from Dungiven Fire Station and Colm was inspired by his dad, Patsy, who had joined in 1948.
“When the siren went off half the town knew about it,” says Colm.
It really is a brotherhood. It’s not just a cliche because, when you’re on the job, you’re depending on your mate, on that comradeship.Veteran firefighter, Colm McGuigan
When the station was bombed in the early seventies, until it was up and running again, the siren was activated from Colm’s family home. Little did he know then, 40 years on, he would have followed in his father’s footsteps.
Colm joined as a retained fire officer on February 3, 1976 and served with his father who was the sub officer for Dungiven Fire Station at the time.
In September 1986, Colm joined as a Wholetime Firefighter joining White Watch Northland following his initial training. He worked as a garage manager at his father’s garage in Main Street, Dungiven, between being a Retained Firefighter and eventually joining in a full-time capacity.
From May 1992 and January 1993, Colm was Leading Firefighter for White Watch, Westland before gaining promotions to roles in Northern Area Command until returning as Station Officer for Green Watch, Northland in August 1996.
For nearly 10 years Colm was appointed to high profile positions in Ballymena, Cookstown and Dungannon and, in June 2005, Colm was promoted to the role of Western Area Command Assistant Area Commander for Personnel and Training.
“It has flown in,” says Colm.
During his time in the job, Colm has dealt with too many tragedies, including The Droppin’ Well bomb in Ballykelly, and the Glenowen fire in Derry in November 1997, in which four members of a family tragically lost their lives. Colm received a Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation for his role in that operation.
He says those heartbreaking scenes “never leave you”.
“It is a great career,” he says. “I dealt with a lot of tragedies, and it’s something you have to deal with. Everyone deals with it in their own way and, for me, I found it’s good to talk with the crew. I found that really helped, but, no, it never leaves you.”
Colm speaks highly of his lifelong friends in the Fire Service.
“It really is a brotherhood,” he says.”It’s not just a cliche because, when you’re on the job, you’re depending on your mate, on that comradeship.”
Colm also speaks highly of the Service and the officers he says are highly trained, motivated and skilled.
“I think the public do appreciate us, and we’re turning our hands to nearly everything nowadays,” says Colm. “I’ve worked in a lot of places but the one thing I saw in Derry, that I never saw anywhere else, was people blessing themselves when they saw us. I’ve never seen that anywhere else. I think it shows people are thinking about where we’re going and who we’re going to.”
Colm has been lucky in that other than a singed ear, here and there, and a sprained ankle, he has never been seriously injured. He has no regrets about the last four decades, although he admits sacrifices had to be made.
He spent plenty of nights apart from his wife Attracta and daughter Carla, sleeping in stations miles away in a camp bed and dining on the finest fast food available.
“We can’t do without our Fire Service and to I’m delighted to have been able to serve for 40 years,” he says.
As for retirement, Colm says he’s going to take it easy. The former Derry GAA player will continue to enjoy his passion for the game (his back garden backs onto St Canice’s GAC in Dungiven and he cuts the pitch) but, he knows every time he sees an engine go past he’ll wonder who needs help.
One thing Colm won’t miss is being the oldest serving fire officer, although he laughs and says the nature of the job demands a natural level of fitness.
“Of course I’ll miss it. You run your life around the Fire Service, particularly in the Retained Service, but I’ve made so many friends and I’ve learnt a wee bit from everybody and every job I went to. We live a fast paced life now, but when you see the gratitude of the people and businesses you help, well the satisfaction of the job is when you do a good job,” says Colm. “There’s no better reward than that. It’s an adrenaline pumping job, and I’m going to miss it.”
NIFRS Western Area Commander Mark Deeney said not only will Colm by missed by his colleagues, but also by the local community “whom he served with distinction for 40 years”.
“His exemplary dedication to all of the roles he took throughout his career, coupled with his time and effort in the development of Firefighters will mean that Colm will be greatly. He has been an outstanding member of the Fire Service for 40 years and served his community tirelessly. He put it before himself and his family on many occasions. He will be missed certainly. On behalf of WAC and the whole of NI Fire & Rescue Service, I would like to wish Colm a very happy retirement.”