Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. spoke to Firehouse.com about the real BCFD behind Hollywood's "Ladder 49," the movie's impact on the department, and how the movie compares to reality.
"I know that everything that you see in that movie is as real as it could be," Goodwin said. "...It shows a firefighter struggling to be a person and the things that they deal with, and I just think that they got it right."
The chief said the incidents in the movie closely mirror the magnitude and essence of incidents faced by Baltimore firefighters in real life. In the last year the department has responded to major situations including a hurricane, a blizzard, high rise fires with losses of life and saves, and high angle rescues.
Goodwin said the one movie situation he hasn't come up against in his 29-year career - deciding whether to call off a search for a trapped firefighter under worsening building conditions - still rang true because it happened in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1999.
"That's one thing that is really important; it's not just Baltimore," Goodwin said. "There are things in there that are pieces of what every department does. We all do it a little bit differently but there are more similarities than there are differences."
Goodwin, a Baltimore native and third generation BCFD firefighter, appears in the movie several times and worked with John Travolta on how to portray a chief. His most touching connection to the movie, however, came as a surprise when he saw the film for the first time last Monday at its Baltimore premiere.
In a very poignant scene, John Travolta shows Joaquin Phoenix pictures of his firefighter father and grandfather. "That's my father's and my grandfather's pictures," Goodwin said. "They asked for pictures from a lot of people, but I didn't know they were going to use them. It was extremely powerful."
Goodwin said the BCFD's involvement in the movie has been an extremely gratifying experience that culminated last week with three exclusive movie showings courtesy of Disney.
He said he has heard only positive reactions so far from firefighters.
"I heard some people say they hadn't heard a complaint in their department since last Friday," Goodwin laughed. "It's really good to see the men and women walking around about a foot off the ground."
The chief said that in light of his efforts over the last three years to increase the BCFD's morale and prestige, the opportunity to work on "Ladder 49" was a perfect fit.
As the post 9/11 fire service faces increased responsibilities and changes, "It just really helped to pull things together," the chief said. "A lot of departments are evolving into things and we don't know what they'll become yet."
When Goodwin became chief almost three years ago, he said, the department had lost their dress uniforms due to budget cuts, which decreased firefighters' pride in public. His first steps as chief included working with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to bring dress uniforms back, and to sit down and talk with every shift at every station to reconnect firefighters with management.
He also broke with convention as chief by wearing a blue work shirt rather than a white shirt. When people ask him why, he says, "Teams wear uniforms. I didn't want to separate myself - my insignia does that - I wanted us to be viewed all as one team."
As chief, Goodwin also implemented an accountability program called Fire Stat. He admits it wasn't a popular concept until the program was used to save part of the department from budget cuts by showing evidence of its importance. Goodwin said that over the course of his career the BCFD has been cut almost in half from 59 engines when he started to 33 today. "Even New York City after 9/11 faced cuts, which seemed like it would never happen," he said. "Fire departments have to show the results of what they do."