Profile: Buncrana Retired Station Officer James McKenna

Date Published : April 19th, 2020    Published By : admin

While growing up in Buncrana, hearing the sound of the fire-house siren wail across the town, calling-in firefighters, and watching the Bedford Angus fire engine roll out of the one-pump station, down the road and into distance of this Donegal town on the Inishowen peninsula was always a fascination of a young James McKenna.

By Declan Keogh
In the early seventies, calling out the fire brigade was much different as it is today. A Station Officer or Sub-Officer would receive the 999 call to their home and then physically drive to the fire station to sound the siren. Firefighters would scramble from their homes or work and quickly get to the station to respond to the call.

Retired Station Officer James McKenna, Buncrana, Co. Donegal

James McKenna retired from Donegal Fire Service on 16th March last, having served 41 years in the fire service. He joined in November 1978, and at the age of 18 then, he couldn’t wait to get into the service.

“I’ve always had an interest in the fire service since I was a child. I didn’t live that far from the fire station here while growing up and id be watching the guys turning out to calls, doing training and going from one call to another around the town and I suppose I was fascinated by all of it and I couldn’t wait to get the chance to join up and luckily enough when I turned 18 there came a vacancy for it, I applied and the rest as they say.’

James started off as a firefighter in 1978 and was appointed Station Officer in Buncrana in 2007. Over his 41 years of service, he saw many changes throughout the brigade, not just in County Donegal, but countrywide too. During his early days in the brigade, fire services in Ireland were legislated for under the Fire Brigade Act 1945, and that all changed in 1981 following what James describes as ‘well documented serious and tragic fires in Ireland.’

“New technologies have come in over the years. When I joined, all the fire engines ran on petrol as opposed to diesel now and there were no radio pagers or alerter. We were still operating under the old fire brigades act 1945 and the new Fire Services Act came in in 1981 after a number of well document serious and tragic fires in Ireland around that time and after that the new legislation came in which saw new training methods developed over the years.”

Pic: Buncrana Fire Service Facebook Page

A lot of new fire behavior training was also introduced and there were new fire engines, PPE and firefighting equipment being planned for stations too.

Donegal Fire & Rescue Service manages 17 fire stations. Fifteen are on the mainland, one is on Arranmore Island and another on Tory Island. Letterkenny, the county’s headquarters and Buncrana, the county’s second fire station, are the only in Donegal which are a two-pump station.

“When I started in Buncrana it was a single pump station. We had a Bedford HCB Angus, a Bedford TK was the chassis and cab, the bodywork was by a UK company called HCB Angus. The pump was a single stage pump, there was no multi stage pump, so you had the same as a portable pump now, a single low pressure all the time and there was one hose-reel which was basically used for dealing with chimney fires or small incident fires and for larger incidents you had a ‘lay-out’, you’d go for a lay flat hose, but it was an excellent fire appliance, it came to the town in 1965 and it was band new at that time.”

Pic: Buncrana Fire Service Facebook Page

Every fire station has recorded high numbers of chimney fires and domestic fires in previous years when solid fuel fires were more common, but since the introduction of renewable energy, energy efficiency, building control measures on modern houses and with climate change in general, the numbers of domestic fires which firefighters are called out to today has greatly reduced in the last few years.

Retired Station Officer James McKenna has seen a vast improvement in the way new houses are built and old houses are renovated to a renewable energy standard which has resulted in major contributions to reducing domestic fires. “There would have been more domestic fires years ago and certainly more chimney fires, it was a far more common type of incident. Alot of people are using renewable energy for heating the home and for electricity etc, so solid fuel fires for heating and cooking isn’t as common now as it was. The building stock over the last few years has greatly improved too with new buildings, with new wiring systems, ventilation and such and this had made a major contribution towards reducing domestic fires” he said.

Donegal Fire Service has developed many successful fire safety campaigns and they have always been committed to delivering those fire prevention and fire safety messages to the public. Donegal County Council provides for funding in its budget each year for fire safety education. “We also have a lot of fire safety campaigns which are run over the years and certainly the message is getting through, and most homes now would have operating smoke alarms in them and people are far more conscious on fire safety in reducing domestic fires and fires in the home.”

However, its not always a nice call they respond to, its not always a firefighter can come back from a call and be happy with the outcome. County Donegal has had its fair share of serious incidents and road traffic collisions for many years. Firefighters, alongside their colleagues in the ambulance service and the gardaí are almost certain to be those first on the scene of such horrific incidents.

According to James, the fire brigade would have spent a large percentage of its time responding to road traffic incidents on Donegal roads, compared to fire incidents. He also says the increase in traffic volumes and the modern cars has no doubt played its part in the tragedies they meet on the roads.

“There was a lot less traffic on the road back in the early days when I joined, and cars weren’t capable of travelling as fast as they can now. There is a lot of traffic on the roads now and that has resulted in a lot more road traffic collisions and the brigade would have spent a large percentage of tine attending to road traffic collisions. Those jobs are never nice to go to. Nobody likes attending incidents like those, certainly serious incidents were people have lost their life.”

Donegal Road Safety Together Working Group receiving an RSA Leading Light Award.

Nationally, each fire authority provides has a mechanism in place whereby fire service personnel can avail of if they need to talk to anyone about a serious incident, if an incident is leading to stress on the person or even for someone to talk to. The Critical Incident Stress Management service is a vital part of mental health and wellbeing in the fire service, of which James endorses it as ‘a very successful and a very useful tool to have to cope with those situations.’

“We’re fortunate that the fire service does provide a very good counselling service and through an external company contracted, and every fire station in the country is the same. Where we would have attended serious incidents where there would have been the loss of life, that service was available. People are also trained in every station called ‘peer supporters’ and they would have a de-briefing back in the station after serious or traumatic incidents and depending on the incident itself, external people can be brought in to counsel the crew following a debrief if needed. The staff are certainly well looked after in that regard.

Asked about his most memorable callouts, the retired station officer says its hard to single out his most memorable call over his 41 years, but said you always remember your first call and your last call. “There have been calls where there’d been multiple casualties or fatalities, and they stick out in your mind. We’ve also attended large building structure fires over the years where there would have been multiple appliances at it and indeed large wildland fires in Donegal and a lot of gorse fires and forest fires. We’ve had incidents over the years where there’s been large attendance from many stations at huge incidents, those are the ones I like to remember.”

Having stepped out of the fire service, James now finds himself looking in again, and with the current coronavirus pandemic crippling the world and putting extra strain on frontline services, James believes the fire service can deal with the situation. “I’m quite confident the fire services will have various procedures in place to deal with COVID-19 and the fire service have a lot of access to a lot of different PPE for various different types of incidents. I’m sure they have procedures in place to keep crews safe so they can still provide a service to the public as all the other services do too, the guards, ambulance, medical service, hospitals and so on. I can imagine they are under a lot of pressure, there’s no doubt about it but there’s training and equipment to help them deal with all these situations” he said.

James and his wife have two daughters and two sons. One daughter is a nurse in Dublin and the other is working in a local pharmacy. One of their sons is a haulage driver, and another is studying in college. Keeping fit and active is a key to keeping James busy. He regularly attends his local gym, CrossFit gym which is run by his nephew.

Having served his community well and proud for 41 years, James is very thankful for his many years of working in a job he always loved as a child. “I want to wish all my colleagues in Buncrana and in Donegal and indeed throughout the country, all the best for the future. I was lucky enough to have attended courses both as a student and in later years and an instructor in several training centres around Ireland and I’ve met some great people. I’d like to wish them all the very best for the future. It was a privilege and an honour to be allowed to serve in a job that I love for over 40 years and it’s a career I would recommend to anybody. I enjoyed every day of it. I can honestly say I would do the 41 years over again if I could. Great job satisfaction, a very rewarding career.”

Station Officer McKenna instructed on many courses in Ireland.

James's last call-out with DL12, Buncrana Fire Station was to a road traffic collision on Thursday 12th March.

Emergency Times would like to extend its thanks to James for his time in this interview, and we wish him a happy, healthy and long retirement.

If you would like us to feature one of your colleagues or family members on their retirement or service, email: (editor @ 


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