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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Damping down the flames
Firefighters in Belfast were attacked more than 200 times last year. BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson went out with one of the crews on their busiest night of the year - Bonfire Night.

It is the eleventh hour of the eleventh night and there's a struggle over a hose. A firefighter is trying to put a blaze out, while an elderly west Belfast man is trying to stop him.

Firemen put out a small outbreak
Red Watch deal with one small outbreak
"Leave that fire alone - it's doing nobody any harm," yells the man, with the help of language as colourful as the bright orange blaze.

Divisional officer John Wilson intervenes.

"Settle down, settle down," he says, and tries to usher the man away. There has been a misunderstanding.

This was a controlled fire - a householder on the outskirts of west Belfast burning some rubbish. From a distance it had looked like a house fire. A neighbour had panicked and dialled 999.

The fire crew checked the area was safe, then agreed to put the hose away.

This crew is from Springfield Road Fire Station and their firefighters - a mixture of Catholics and Protestants - cover a swathe of north and west Belfast which includes the loyalist Shankill Road and the republican Falls Road.

On their way back to base they hear a dull thud at the back of the vehicle. A stone has been thrown. The crew barely notice.

They see a uniform, they see authority. Sometimes stone-throwing becomes almost recreational for them
Station Officer
Martin McDonald
Firefighter Mark Cushnahan, 23, shrugs his shoulders. It happens all the time, he says.

"Sometimes we don't even realise. It's only when we next go on top of the appliance later and are lifting the main ladder that we find all these stones and bricks."

There is other evidence too. The two main fire engines are littered with dents, too many to count, at the front, back and sides. It's as if the vehicle has become a moving dart board.

The crews from this station were attacked 51 times last year - that's an average of once a week. In Belfast as a whole, there were 204 similar incidents.

It's not just stones that are thrown - hammers, axes, golf balls and even shopping trolleys. At a nearby block of flats, they used to drop dirty nappies on the heads of the firefighters below.

The culprits are usually kids, some younger than 10.

Needless to say, it isn't just physical abuse, there are verbal attacks too. So why would anyone target a fire crew?

"They see a uniform, they see authority. Sometimes stone-throwing becomes almost recreational for them," station officer Martin McDonald tells me, as we sit sipping tea at 1am.

Martin McDonald
Martin McDonald: "Throwing stones at firefighters almost recreational for some"
"People talk about there being an acceptable level of violence in Northern Ireland - for firefighters it seems there has been in the past an acceptable level of abuse. That's my personal opinion."

And that's one of the reasons why he now goes to all the schools in the area to help educate young people about the importance of leaving the local fire crews in peace.

A number of officers have been hit, as well as their vehicles. Most of the injuries have been minor, but divisional officer John Wilson says: "We are very fortunate we haven't had a catastrophe..."

Suddenly the alarm goes. It's almost 2am, but the 11 firefighters of Red Watch are still able to sprint down the stairs.

If Athens decided to make this an Olympic sport, these guys would be medal contenders.

There's a house-fire on the Old Park Road in north Belfast. Or is there?

Another call-out for Red Watch at Springfield Road station
Another call-out for Red Watch at Springfield Road station
It's a false alarm. When the crew arrive, the local people are very apologetic.

"That's one point I want to stress," says John Wilson, "99.9% of people are very supportive of what we do. It's a tiny, tiny number who cause the trouble."

It has been an unusually quiet bonfire night for Red Watch. Across Northern Ireland, there were 207 call-outs - and only about a quarter of them were bonfire-related.

There were four attacks on crews - a bottle thrown here and there - but nothing too serious.

The attacks come from both sides of the community. Overall, there has been a slight decrease in the past year, but the problem persists.

Back at the Springfield Road fire station, it's almost dawn, and the yawning has begun (mostly by me). It's time to say goodnight to Red Watch.

Having spent some time with these fire crews, I've been impressed by their good humour and modesty in the face of danger.

Their positive attitude has been, dare I say it, quite striking.


SEE ALSO:
Firefighter injured in attack
15 Mar 04 |  Northern Ireland


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