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.

"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."

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.

For example, when someone firebombed a Baltimore house with seven people inside, of which five were children, "If that's not terrorism I don't know what is," he said. "We have to keep our focus on looking for that terrorist event, but incorporating the things we do each and every day, because if we prepare for the next plane to hit a building but lose seven or eight children, I think we've failed."

Goodwin said Baltimore's homeland security strategy has actually become a model for other departments because it builds on something they already know - the hazardous materials procedures they already have in place. "People understand that. They didn't understand what homeland security was going to be, or how it had to change, but they understood hazardous materials response," the chief said.

For all the aspects of the department that the movie did cover, the BCFD made sure accuracy was a top priority by getting the agreement in writing.

Goodwin said he signed an agreement with film makers at the beginning of the process saying the department would open their arms and experiences to them, and asking that the city and fire department be portrayed accurately. "They stuck to it all along," he said. Fire officials had final approval of much of the script and were able to influence change. For example, Goodwin said, there was going to be some dialogue about whether the firefighters were going to get a raise. The department didn't want the movie to be political, however, so they asked that it be removed.

Even apart from the accuracy agreement, Goodwin said Director Jay Russell and the rest of the crew really cared about getting their portrayal of the fire service right, and many BCFD firefighters and film makers grew very close. "The relationship we built with the whole production exists to this day," Goodwin said. "There must be something really special about the profession that we have because it even affected them."

Goodwin said a number of factors made some of the BCFD's contributions to the movie possible, including timing. They had just gotten in new apparatus, which made it easier to lend film makers reserve apparatus, and happened to have a fire station that was temporarily vacant. That station, where the movie starts with Travolta as a captain before he becomes Chief, went by its real name of Engine 33 in the movie, and happens to be the station where Goodwin was once a captain himself.

The name "Ladder 49" however, is fictitious. "I think the good thing about that it's really everybody," Goodwin said.

The chief appears in the movie several times: there is a glimpse of him dancing with his wife at the wedding reception, standing by Travolta when everyone is singing "Fire," in a funeral scene and in a medals ceremony scene. "I actually appear to my amazement in the credits," he said.

Goodwin said he hopes the positive experience of working on "Ladder 49" will have a lasting impact on the department. "I know we're extremely honored to be able to portray every man and woman across the country that does what we do every day," he said.

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