“It’s a great honour to have the conference here,” said Westmeath’s Chief Fire Officer of the two day Chief Fire Officers’ Association conference in Mullingar this week.
Up to 150 delegates attended the event at the Mullingar Park Hotel, where Ireland’s largest exhibition of fire and safety equipment is also taking place.
Dave Stuart, who is chief of the Athlone as well as Westmeath fire service, is hosting and co-ordinating the event which has speakers from across Europe.
Westmeath has had its share of fires in recent times, with a pub in Rochfortbridge destroyed at the end of April. Gardaí, who are still investigating the incident believe it to have been maliciously started and a number of young people have been questioned.
Two men will appear at Mullingar Circuit Court next week charged with arson arising out of a fire that caused €1m damage at the Wines Direct Premises in October 2007.
Research shows that arson increases during times of recession, as more buildings are left vacant and are an attraction to disaffected young people.
Dave Stuart admits there is a “danger of increased arson in idle hands” and spoke of the obvious economic loss. He said the danger is that people will start targeting buildings.
Regardless of the cause, the local fire service will be there.
There are 15 officers in Mullingar and Athlone and nine in Kilbeggan and Castlepollard and there is a cost, sometimes to the owner and sometimes to the local authority, when they go out.
“Irrespective of the incident, we have the training and protective gear,” he says and they have practiced “a lot of procedures so we don’t endanger our own people”.
“We’re trying to educate kids in fire prevention issues,” says the chief pointing out that Westmeath is in the unusual situation of having two fire services for historic reasons. It would be better if they were streamlined, he says.
“The true causes of fire are poverty, deprivation, poor education and housing, and a poor quality of life,” said Brian Tregunna Chief Fire Officer at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service in England.
Gardaí agree that derelict houses in estates are an attraction to young people, especially if they are hanging around on a regular basis, drinking and/or taking drugs, and someone decides to light a few papers.
People should remain vigilant and report to their council and Gardaí any unusual activity around vacant sites. Maliciously set fires in housing estates can have devastating consequences if the fire spreads and fires at commercial properties are lethal because there may be hazardous chemicals or flammable materials there or in neighbouring buildings.
Some 46 people die in fires in Ireland each year and over 1,000 are seriously injured by burns or smoke inhalation.
The maximum penalty for arson is life imprisonment.