Mark Callanan: ‘Volunteerism is at the heart of community engagement, and it’s one of the main elements which keeps my role turning’

Traveling up and down the Western seaboard, from Donegal to Limerick is an area known well to NAS Community Engagement Officer Mark Callanan, as he meets Community Fire Responder groups in the ‘Area West’ region of the National Ambulance Service.

By Declan Keogh
A typical day starts off with checking through emails, making some phone calls to CFR coordinators and assessing new CFR group applications. By mid-morning, Mark is on the road to an ambulance base or to meet another Community First Responder group.

The ambulance service’s community engagement sector is a busy role, and on a national capacity, its has just last week appointed additional Community Engagement Officers who will do much the same work and responsibilities as Mark already does.

I am responsible for all the groups, in west and south. We’re very busy from a national capacity, but the CFR concept is not a new one, it’s been around since the early 90’s to today, this comes from the innovation of our staff members, back from the day, and it’s fantastic that they could see the importance of community response right back then, and without them, we wouldn’t be sitting on over 200 voluntary groups today.

NAS Community Engagement Officer Mark Callanan. Pic: Declan Keogh / Emergency Times

Getting people and communities interested in signing up to become a registered CFR group is a job in itself. Announcements and promotions of the events are undertaken, and public information nights are held which are designed to get the people interested in the scheme and to give them more information about it. “We’ll introduce the idea to the entire community, everybody, it doesn’t matter what you do, where you are from or even how long you are in the community, we’ll invite people along, a presentation is made on the night and it opens up the door  to community response within that community then into what it is actually all about. We’ll go through all of the requirements needed from each person, the opportunities that are they’re and the support from the ambulance service too.”

Volunteerism is at the heart of community engagement, and it’s one of the main elements which keep Mark’s role turning, engaging with volunteers from all walks of life and all backgrounds, all of whom are wanting to help make a difference, prevent cardiac arrest and save a life. “What I’ve found is that members coming from the voluntary services have excellent experience and they have quite a lot to offer to community response, and the reason we hold the community public information sessions is that you don’t have to have that experience. We have groups from around the country that are made up from frontline personnel, from the voluntary services, and we have groups that are made up of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; it’s tremendous to see the mix around the country.

What I’ve noticed  in the last two years as engagement officer is there is a huge structure of support that is building quiet strong in that there is very much a pay-it forward system in that if we help Group A get off the ground, they will help Group B and group b will help Group C and so on, and that helps to strengthen the structures locally as well.

A CFR group in Cork.

Callanan has welcomed the additional support from the national ambulance service too, and only last week, more Community Engagement Officers began their own roles in their designated areas, creating a more structured regional community engagement system within the NAS.

Having more Community Engagement Officers to work in areas around the country provides the much-needed support and service which CFR groups also need. “The ambulance service supports CFR’s, we can send equipment, we can help instructors in their early days of training but it’s also part of the plan that each group becomes self-sufficient in their own right where they will have their own instructors, their own systems in place and whatever problems they come across, they will be able to fix it themselves in a lot of cases, and where they can’t, they will come back to the ambulance service for hep and guidance which we will offer to them.

Carlow Fire Service Sub Officer Darrell Hayden and Mark Callanan at Carlow Fire Station recently

Carlow Fire & Rescue Service and Cork City Fire Service have both initiated their own Fire CFR groups, and some groups within An Garda Síochána have also done so too. These groups are an additional and essential asset to the local communities they serve. Some firefighters and gardaí are trained to EFR-CFR level and can respond to incidents of Cardiac Arrest once alerted by the ambulance services National Emergency Operations Centre, and once the crew are available to deal with the case.

Mark Callanan says these groups are a fantastic first responder model. “I’m delighted to be working with fire services and gardai from across the country in CFR Groups and to push out the #GardaCFR and #CFRFire models. Carlow and Cork City Fire Brigades are really pushing out their fantastic first response models there, and in terms of the garda response and the fire response, their primary duties are policing and fire rescue, and community response comes secondary to that, they will only attend a cardiac arrest call if they are not already committed to their primary duties. Ultimately, community first response is not about replacing an ambulance response in any area, first responders will not replace that emergency response, they will enhance it.”

Limerick Gardaí Paul Baynham and Aidan Riordan promoting Save a Life. photo: Andrew Carey

The National Ambulance Service emphasises that while a CFR groups is alerted and dispatched to a patient, an ambulance response is also being dispatched and will arrive to the case too. When the NEOC sends a first responder into an area, an ambulance is still coming, or a response car, a motorbike, whatever it is, they are still on the way and that won’t change nor will it be replaced with cfr groups. Community First Responders, because they live locally, in a local area they gave a much quicker response time, they can get in there and start the patients chain of survival time an awful lot quicker.

National Ambulance Service personnel at FESSEF’s National Services Day, Dublin. Photo: Declan Keogh / Emergency Times

Mark is also a committee member of the FESSEF, (Frontline Emergency, Security Services Éire Forum), which is the committee behind the National Services Day and in addition to his own job, he also attends committee meetings in Dublin for the national event. “I am a member of the FESSEF and National Services Day committee, as you are too Declan, and I am absolutely delighted to be part of that committee, it brings together many different people and officers from all the various services for an event which this year takes place in Saturday 7th,  and the idea is to highlight all of the national frontline emergency and voluntary services in Ireland, I was involved last year for the first time, it’s a tremendous group, the ambulance service is getting tremendous representation on the day. It’s fantastic to see what’s going on and even to interact with all of our other frontline services is great to see.

Mark Callanan and Declan Keogh at National Ambulance Service headquarters.

Long hours and anti-social are all par of the role of a Community Engagement Officer, and meeting and engaging with colleagues in the various ambulance sectors is also part of that role, but like any other job, there must be a down-time too.

“Time off and switching off is a hard thing to do as my job is in the community, and I’m constantly looking for opportunities for other communities, so it’s sometime shard to switch off, but I do. In a previous life I played Rugby before joining the ambulance service in 2012. That kind of got in the way of me playing rugby but I always had a desire to go back playing but I didn’t want to get broken, so I said I’d go away and train as a referee, so I’m now a Youths referee for the Connaught branch at the moment, so instead of being a mouthy scrum-half on the pitch, I’m now the man in the middle giving out to the mouthy scrum-half, and its opened up a new area for me in that I never thought I’d see myself going into but I really really enjoy it and being a Community Engagement Officer with the NAS is something I really love doing too, because I get to meet and work with so many people and groups around the country.”