Category: PIO Blog

Detroit: A Culture of Extinguishment

Detroit: A Culture of Extinguishment

As a fire department PIO I’m fortunate that my passion of photography is also my job.  I don’t know of any others in my profession that schedule vacation time, pack up their cameras and handguns, travel to one of America’s most dangerous cities, intentionally spend sleepless nights in post-apocalyptic looking neighborhoods to photograph a department they don’t work for.  Welcome to my life.

I began researching Detroit from afar after watching news reports by Charlie Leduff, a brilliant and unconventional journalist.  Later, the BURN documentary solidified my desire to visit Detroit and see firefighting life there for myself.  During a brief trip in 2015 my wife and I ventured on an urban exploration journey with photographer Jesse Welter.  That experience combined with a record breaking July 4th for arson fires was a true awakening for me in regards to what we have allowed an American city to become.  I knew I had to go back again and I just returned from a weeklong visit.

Fire photographers have inadvertently created a misperception of the Detroit Fire Department that I hope to correct here.  While in Detroit I only made it on scene of 7 working structure fires in 5 days… yep, an average of one per day and it wasn’t for lack of trying.  It also wasn’t for lack of fire.  “Box Alarm” was announced over the radio multiple times per day for reported fires in structures.  “Still Alarms” went out more often for smaller reported fires, including detached garages, with a response of only 1 Engine and 1 Ladder.  In a city that spans 142 square miles it’s nearly impossible for a photographer to arrive on scene of a small fire in time to see anything worth capturing an image of.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

On the first night companies arrived on Cicotte Street and found a dwelling “going throughout,” perhaps a photographers favorite words.  A lot of fire means higher chances of capturing those iconic DFD photos of firefighter silhouettes in front of raging infernos.   A short time later my wife (yes she comes with cameras in hand too) and I pulled down the block and only saw blinding red LED lights in a small haze of smoke.  In a matter of minutes this fully engulfed house had already been extinguished with an interior search and overhaul in progress.  No drama, no flames, just Firefighters doing what the city pays them to do, put out fires.

Engine 42 on scene of a dwelling found “going throughout” on Cicotte Street and quickly controlled.

Next try, an eastside box with the companies everyone has seen in BURN, Engine 50, Ladder 23 and Chief 9.  “Stretching on a vacant dwelling,” meant this was another legit fire but there was nothing to see once we got there.  Rigs in the street, firefighters inside and not a puff of smoke left.

Engine 50 (using a spare) on Jane Street where fire blowing out the front was quickly controlled

Lets try the 8th Battalion, “Central, send me an extra company for RIT,” more help needed, it must be a gooder and it was, before we got there.  This was the first fire where it hit me, lesson number 1, what all of my fantastic photographer counterparts haven’t been sharing, notice anything strange about this photo? At Box Alarm with 4 Engines, 1 Ladder and 1 Squad Company on scene you can only see the aerial operator on the turntable and the Battalion Chief in Command; everyone else was inside.  This photo isn’t going to win an award or end up in print but it tells an important part of the DFD story.

Ladder 18 on scene of a vacant dwelling fire on Norwood, Chief 8 commands from the street.

Another day, another round of Box Alarms but this time it was different, “Defensive Posture,” ah ha! Finally we’ll get to witness one of those iconic DFD blazes and there was a big plume of smoke in the air to boot.  A big plume that quickly got smaller after companies dumped the monitors and set up an aerial before we could get there.  A trip from the 7th Battalion up to the 5th isn’t the longest trek a person can make in Detroit, but it was long enough for these professionals to knock down a fully engulfed 2 story vacant.

Ladder 22 front and center knocking down flames with their aerial master stream.

I consider myself lucky to have captured a fireground moment I’ve never seen anywhere before, in person or in a picture.  This was a display of confidence from a “fireman’s fireman” that undoubtedly will make the safety police and keyboard IC’s take a defensive posture of their own.  As a PIO I debated about sharing it with anyone but as a journalist I know it’s a once in a lifetime photograph.  Other than, “What a badass” the other comment from firefighters who have seen this image is, “Just another day at the office.”  I couldn’t agree more with both statements.

A Detroit Firefighter takes a creative and expert level approach to dismounting an aerial ladder.

It took a few days and another 3 a.m. Box Alarm before I captured a fire that meets the incorrect expectation of a standard Detroit job.  A wood frame dwelling was going throughout and this time it was close enough to our hotel.  An ember-filled plume was up and could be seen from blocks away as Ladder 6 prepared for aerial operations.  No immediate exposures, just a vacant tinderbox that resembled a large bonfire.  3 other photographers had beaten us and were capturing images of their own.  I won’t argue that this type of incident isn’t great for photography, it is, but it’s not what the Detroit Fire Department does most.

Ladder 6 opens up on a vacant dwelling going throughout at Canfield and St. Clair.
The iconic Detroit Fire Department image, a big defensive fire on an empty street.

“Box Alarm, fire is reported in a 4-flat with people trapped.”  Those were the words I woke up to as companies were going en-route around 3 a.m. yet again.  After 18 years in the fire service I still hate responding incidents were people are hurt.  This trip was supposed to be about big defensive fires in vacant buildings, not about people trapped inside their burning home.  Reality check.  I couldn’t be even remotely excited when I walked up the block on this one and considered not going at all.  Concerned neighbors lined the sidewalk, any visible fire that popped up was quickly knocked down and the spray from hydraulic ventilation was raining down on us.

Detroit Firefighters aggressively working inside both levels and on the roof.

See this image?  This was a repeat of lesson number 1 for me.  The unsung hero’s of Detroit EMS, a Battalion Chief and 2 Firefighters on the roof opening up were the only personnel not INSIDE this structure searching and putting out 2 floors of fire.  This is what the Detroit Fire Department is all about.  Using the words of Ray McCormack, Detroit is a “culture of extinguishment.”  The community takes notice, I know because I stood with them as they spoke words of praise for these brave men and women.  Yes, women, more on that later.

A lonely looking scene as EMS stands by for possible victims while Firefighters work inside and on the roof.

Lesson number 2 first appeared to me at this fire and it wasn’t the last time.  Exhaustion.  Detroit’s Firefighters work until they are physically unable to stand upright anymore.  This brave officer laid his airpack on the ground, took off his red helmet and fell to his knees in the street.  The sound of low air alarms could be heard inside the smoke filled structure where there was still much work to be done.

Exhausted, this officer fell to his knees in the street.

In the foreground the incident commander laid his hand on this officer’s back and briefly spoke to him.  I don’t know what the chief said, but it was what this man needed to get back on his feet and pull line into the first floor where a flare up was being taken care of.

A Battalion Chief laid his hand on this exhausted officer’s back.

Exhaustion isn’t always easy to see and sometimes it’s even more difficult to capture in a photograph.  After arduous vertical ventilation with a TNT tool, this firefighter sat down on the roofline appearing to catch his breath.  A short time later he slowly made his way down the aerial and looked to be in pain.

This Firefighter seemed exhausted after opening up the hard way.

Another day, another 3 a.m. Box Alarm, this time in Detroit’s southwest side, just down the street from the quarters of E33/L13.  2 vacant dwellings were going throughout and auto exposing a detached garage and occupied home on the bravo side.  I watched Firefighters do an excellent job stopping a freight train of heat from destroying someone’s home and talking to the family about what was happening.   People live here.

The Bravo 1 exposure going throughout at 8147 Lafayette.
Ladder 13 battles 2 vacant dwellings going throughout.
Firefighters prevented further damage to a neighboring occupied home.

Mid afternoon, just a half block off of Woodward, a Box Alarm.  We could see it from our hotel just over a mile away and made good time.  The first Engine already dumped their monitor on 2 floors of fire extending into the attic of a vacant dwelling.

 

The term vacant is a loose one as I found out from neighbors and concerned community members who knew of people that spent time inside the burning structure.  It served as a convenient place for the addicted and the otherwise homeless that have families and friends who worry about them.  Why wasn’t this fire and countless others in vacant buildings defensive?  Because they’re so often being sought for shelter by people who might need to be rescued.

 

Engine 35 uses their monitor for transitional attack.
The Chief commands while advancing hose into the front door, his Firefighters all inside searching.

After the monitor was used a second time crews made the push inside and an additional Engine was requested for RIT, brining a neighboring company from Hamtramck.  This was an all out interior assault on a fire that would have easily been declared defensive in other places.  Exhaustion was easy to see at this scene as two Firefighters collapsed outside and took in some fresh oxygen from EMS.  It served as enough of a recharge to get back inside and work again.

One of my favorite moments captured resulted from excited neighbors applauding and cheering when they realized one of the hard working Firefighters was a woman.  She acknowledged with a big smile and a bunker coat curtsy.  She was the first female firefighter I had ever seen in Detroit, a few days earlier at the defensive fire on Canfield and St. Clair.  I didn’t talk to her on this sunny afternoon but she looked tough as nails with a smile that says, “stretching and loving it.”

A Firefighter reacts to applause and cheers from neighbors.

The perception that Detroit Firefighters only stand outside of fully involved vacant buildings in empty neighborhoods and always go defensive is wrong.  Their singed bunker gear and blackened helmets don’t get that way from standing in the street.  These are aggressive big city professionals who do more with less every day.  As an observer I flew home feeling like I attended Box Alarm University.  There are only a handful of places the U.S. where you can visit and be guarantied to witness an uncontrolled classroom of scene safety, reading smoke, fire behavior, strategy & tactics, hose placement, ladder placement, exposure protection and overhaul techniques… the 313 tops that short list.  I am better from watching them.

 

Freeman’s Flag

Freeman’s Flag

Thousands of people drove past Firehouse 33 that day and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, I had already passed by twice and didn’t pay particular attention to any of the details.  The American Flag was flying high and waving in the southwest breeze, just as it does on most days.  A symbol of freedom, patriotism and respect.  But this flag was different.  This flag was destined for a display of ultimate honor and sacrifice.  It was Freeman’s Flag.

The South Metro Fire Rescue Honor Guard hoisted a brand-new flag to fly proudly above 33’s that day knowing it would soon be presented to a grieving firefighter family.  I discovered that fact shortly before my daily drive home, which led me past Dry Creek Road and Quebec Street, the home of Firehouse 33.  While stopped at the red light and facing the station, I captured a rather unartistic image of the flag.  I could have stopped, selected one of my cameras and composed a photograph with perfect lighting but I didn’t.  This moment in time was captured the way everyone else saw it, at a glance.

Mike Freeman is man I wish I knew better but I’m grateful for the times he and I spent together, most often at a fire scene or training.  The deafening pump panel of a working Engine Company isn’t the most ideal place to talk to someone but it is the place I will keep Mike in my memories.  No matter how task saturated Mike seemed to be, he never let me pass by without a solid handshake (usually with a wet leather glove) and a compliment about my photography.  At a 2nd Alarm house fire during 2012 I captured Mike kicking out a kink as a supply line was being charged.  Moments after this photograph was taken I received one of those strong handshakes from Mike, a gesture I most certainly took for granted.

On the morning of Monday July 17, 2017, 24 hours after Mike left us, the flag at Engine Company 33 was flying at a half-staff.  The emptiness left in all of our hearts was expressed by draping black memorial bunting on the firehouse.  A brief ceremony was carried out that day by grieving firefighters, using Tower 35 (the late Captain John Hager’s company) to attach the bunting.

The next time I saw Freeman’s flag it was peacefully blanketing his casket. Free’s firefighter brothers and sisters kept a close eye on him during a 24/7 Honor Watch.  Out of the wind, away from the passing world, silent and serine yet thoughts of Free were deafening.  As the clock ticked on we drew closer to his full honors funeral.

White gloved hands gently guided Mike into the sanctuary where so many came to say goodbye.  Free’s flag proudly adorned him while the honor guard ensured his protection and words from chief officers, firefighter brothers and family echoed through the sea of blue.  Free’s flag was intricately folded, entrusted to the Operations Chief with a salute and presented to Mike’s grieving family.  It was a salient moment in time made exceptionally difficult to capture with tears filling my viewfinder.

Free’s last ride atop the pumper he so loved to wheel, took him under a Garrison Flag held by dual Tower Ladders, down the streets he responded on to help the community, in front of the firehouses he spent 43 years on duty working in and past the people who lined his procession route to pay their respects.  I will never look at an American Flag flying above a firehouse the same way again, thanks to Free.

PIO’s Should Be Where The Story Is Happening

PIO’s Should Be Where The Story Is Happening

All too often as incidents are unfolding I hear that PIO’s must be located at the command post or media staging area.  While good communication with command and news media need to be maintained, I argue that the PIO should be witnessing the story firsthand.  Proper training and or supervision along with personal protective equipment are non-negotiables for this type of reporting.  While the media staging area must be located in a safe, cold zone location with the best view of the incident possible, the PIO can be operating in the warm zone and obtaining images for distribution.  News needs to be reported as its happening, not in a media statement, press conference or written release after the fact.  Harness the power of photography, videography, editing software and social media from the warm zone to tell your agencies story as it happens.  The content you capture just might go viral and trend as the incident presses on.

Unscripted Premiere

Unscripted Premiere

I’ve seen many videos produced by fire departments over the years and I knew I needed to shake things up with my production debut.  I want to tell timely and meaningful stories combined with high impact visuals and entertainment value.  Promoted video (paid advertising) on social media is always an option but organic sharing and new followers are true tests to gauge success.  For National Telecommunicators Week I feature South Metro Fire Rescue Dispatch “MetCom” and their Incident Dispatch Team.  Both are quite unique, very successful and make for interesting viewing subjects.  With the use of body, dash mounted and professional quality cameras, editing software, music and creativity; I created this video in-house without the need to outsource.

Some Kids Just Know

Some Kids Just Know

Paramedic Mike Porter and Public Information Officer Eric Hurst – Left 1992, Right 2016

I was a young child in elementary school when I first watched fire apparatus from the Castlewood Fire Department parade past my neighborhood in the summer of 1991.  I was particularly excited to see the giant paramedic rescue truck housed at the fire station closest to where I lived.  I was one of dozens of children who climbed into “Rescue 31” that day and met Paramedic Firefighter Michael Porter.  I wanted to be a firefighter more than anything but little did Mike and I know that today we would be working along side one another at South Metro Fire Rescue.

My Dad and I (left) at the King Soopers fire at Belleview and Yosemite in May of 2000.

My fire service career got an early start one November morning in 1995 when my father, a Disaster Team Volunteer with the American Red Cross, woke me up and allowed me to ride along with him to a 4 Alarm fire less than a mile from our home.  A commercial strip mall was ablaze with large flames and smoke filling the pre-dawn sky.  I didn’t know at the time but that building at the corner of Belleview Avenue and Yosemite Street was the scene of an arson fire 9 years earlier that claimed the life of Captain John Hager.  As the history books go it was also the site of Castlewood’s first ever recorded fire, a stubble field in 1951.

From that morning on I regularly responded to fires with my father, mostly in the south metro area but occasionally into Denver and the foothills for large wildfires like Buffalo Creek.  During that time I also became a volunteer disaster volunteer and at the age of 16 was given a Captain position with my own team of volunteers.

Castle Rock Explorers 1998

In 1997 at the age of 14 I was accepted as an Explorer with Castle Rock Fire Rescue and began my firefighter training.  At the time CRFD was operating 2 person engine companies which provided great opportunities to learn and truly be a working part of the crew.  When I turned 17 I joined the Franktown Fire Protection District as a Volunteer Firefighter and completed my Firefighter I academy just after I graduated from high school in 2003.  That summer I got my first job as a part-time dispatcher with Castle Pines Emergency Services.

At 19 years old I was eager to get a full-time position with any fire department willing to take me.  After testing with a large group of people I scored 2nd highest on my dispatcher tests and was accepted as a Communications Specialist with Littleton Fire Rescue.  While at LFR I became a Training Officer, built an Incident Dispatch Team and was voted Telecommunication of the Year by my peers in 2005.

Franktown Fire Academy 2003

Photography and Firefighting were both something I enjoyed but never thought about combining until I was first on scene of an apartment fire one morning.  I grabbed my camera and shot photos as Littleton and South Metro Firefighters battled the 3 Alarm fire.  After that incident LFR offered me a volunteer photographer position which I happily accepted.  I responded to all of the working incidents I could outside of working in dispatch and volunteering with Franktown.  Englewood and Sheridan Fire Department’s liked the idea so much that they also gave me volunteer photographer status.  In 2008 I collaborated with 3 other Colorado photographers and formed 5280Fire, a firefighting news and apparatus photo website.

Employee of the Year 2016

At the end of 2006 I was hired as a Dispatcher with South Metro Fire Rescue, a move I was excited about since it brought me back to my roots with the former Castlewood Fire Department.  I ascended through the ranks to Lead Dispatcher, Dispatch Supervisor and Operations Manager while training to be a PIO through on-call and intern work.  In 2017 after being voted employee of the year by my peers and receiving a Distinguished Service Award for my PIO work, I was appointed to the position full-time.