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.


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.