Big Sam Donnell, Crew Commander at the Crescent Link fire station, is standing down after fighting fires, responding to road traffic accidents and keeping the public safe in Derry for the past 30 years.
Sam, who joined the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, as it was then, on October 23, 1989, was recently wished a very happy retirement at a send-off in the Waterside station.
Colleagues presented him with a special commemorative plaque bearing the stripes he has earned over three decades of public service.
The memento bears tribute from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) Chief Fire Officer Michael Graham.
“Now that you are retiring from the Fire and Rescue Service may I offer you my best wishes for the future and say how much your service has been appreciated during the past 30 years,” it reads.
Sam is married to Daphne and lives in Eglinton where he will now have more time to spend with his beloved dogs and their new springador pup.
After joining the fire service in 1989 and completing his induction Crew Commander Donnell was assigned to ‘Red Watch’ at the Northland Road Fire Station at the end of February 1990.
By 1997 he had been promoted to lead firefighter and had transferred to ‘Red Watch’ at the Crescent Link.
“Over the next years, Sam took a number of temporary promotions to Sub Officer, working in both Crescent Link and Northland,” colleagues said.
In April 2013 he moved to specialist project work (based in Western Area Headquarters at the Crescent Link) and he was instrumental in the introduction of enhanced flood response measures, including the establishment and equipping of specialist teams across NI.
“Sam has continued in this role to present day, again working across all of NI while based in Crescent Link. Flood response is a very dangerous role as the water can be deep, fast-moving and full of unseen hazards, so his knowledge and skills have been invaluable. Sam’s tasks included ensuring teams are adequately resourced with Personal Protective Equipment, and flood response equipment and communications; developing and delivering training and health and safety guidance; and liaison with interagency partners and stakeholders to gather risk information and develop operational response plans.”
He has also been involved in public education and awareness as well as research to ensure best practice in NIFRS and compliance with national guidelines.
During a long career Sam developed highly-specialised skills in mass decontamination, rope rescue and road traffic collision response.
As a member of the Crescent Link flood response team he was one of a small number of personnel trained in power boat response.
He has been involved in water rescues, vehicle-in-water incidents and wading rescues, right across the North including a heroic rescue in Derry when he was off-duty about 20 years ago.
“Sam showed an early aptitude for water rescue when he jumped into the River Foyle in 1998 whilst off-duty to rescue a boy who was drowning.
“It was a November night so cold and dark, and Sam had difficulty seeing the boy in the water, but he managed to find him and swim to the river bank with him, saving the boy’s life. Sam received a Chief Fire Officer Commendation for ‘his selfless action and personal courage’.
“Sam also had a huge interest in road traffic collision (RTC) skills & techniques, and led the Red Watch Crescent Link extrication team which competed at both national and international level in Extrication Challenges.
“The team first competed in 2003, becoming Northern Ireland Champions that year and going on to compete in the UK championship where they won a place at the World Finals.
“They repeated that achievement in 2005 when they went to the World Finals in South Africa, and again in 2007 when the World Finals were held in Barcelona.
“The team did great work both with Firefighters and the public to raise awareness of RTC rescues.”
Needless to say his friends and colleagues are sad to see him go.
“Sam is our gentle giant and his skills, knowledge and experience are a huge loss, not just locally but across all of NIFRS.”