Chief On The Baltimore City Fire Department And "Ladder 49"

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.


Goodwin said that in real life, one of the most widely publicized and deeply touching recent incidents for the BCFD was the Harbor Seaport Water Taxi Incident last March.

"The water taxi incident was something that changed our entire city in days and turned out to be a much more emotionally involved issue than we ever anticipated," he said. In the blink of an eye 25 people were in the water, and rescuers didn't have any list of names or number of passengers. After many rescues and tracking of victims, they established that three bodies remained missing and became committed to recovering them.

Despite offers of assistance from across the country to provide search equipment, Goodwin said the harbor and shipping channel proved a formidable foe, and it came down to the BCFD divers in the water. The process lasted 10 days, and the incident took a strange turn as firefighters got to know the victims' families and as controversy brewed over the department's closure of the shipping channel, which affected maritime operations from around world. "Had it not been a success you probably would be talking to a different chief today," Goodwin said.

Of the incidents portrayed in "Ladder 49," Goodwin said the one that really hit home for him was the dwelling fire where a firefighter falls through the roof. "It happens all the time, and we have said to each other all week since we saw that scene - that was so close that it was eerie to all of us," Goodwin said. "That was the one part that really stuck with me."

Goodwin said firefighters were also very touched by the small details in the movie that really make it familiar, such as the squawk of the radio in the background and the sound of the gong. "It sounds like it's hanging behind you on the wall... it literally makes you move," he said. "There are things that anybody that's been in a long time has seen over and over again - things that of course a movie critic wouldn't pick up on."

Goodwin, who has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University, said one thing he wishes the movie could have included is an emphasis on the level of education in the fire service. "So many times we're looked at as testosterone based heroes," he said, "when the thing that really gives our profession credibility and credence is when we can stand with anyone else and have the credentials to speak, because then people listen."

Goodwin said Hollywood did add a bit of glitz to some aspects of the movie, such as the high angle rescue where Joaquin Phoenix smashes through a window in front of a TV helicopter. However, each incident has a great deal of truth to it, he said, and he refuted one criticism that Phoenix's character sees a much more glamorous career than a real firefighter.

"I think in a large urban environment you see that and more," the chief said. "We just gave medals to over 200 people at medals day."

In addition, he pointed out, "I don't think you have to look at this movie necessarily as all of these incidents happened to one person. It's everybody across the country portrayed by one guy. In some people's eyes maybe that's a lot for a career, but if you talk to a group of a dozen firefighters, then you come up with all those stories. That's what's important."

Although "Ladder 49" focuses on traditional fire department activities, Goodwin said one of the BCFD's major initiatives over the last several years has been homeland security. Goodwin is chairman of the Baltimore Urban Area Working Group that is responsible for the homeland security strategy of the Baltimore Metropolitan Region, which includes Baltimore, the five surrounding counties and the Maryland state capital of Annapolis.

As the department adapts to prepare for a Weapons of Mass Destruction, mass casualty type of response, Goodwin said he wants to emphasize a message - "Whatever we do since 9/11, we have to do it each and every day in the things that we have our daily mission for," he said.