Lately it seems I am doing a lot of training photos. The fire department. The SWAT and SRT teams. The Sheriff’s Posse. Gunman at hospital scenario. Gunman at school scenario. I am not complaining about this. Personally I love it and I love the photos that are coming out of it. But these training sessions have proven to be not only a series of photo opportunities but also a much needed reality check. I go and I learn.
This all started months ago. I have a cousin who is a volunteer firefighter in Kentucky. When Joe is needed he gets a page and goes as needed. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, but one day it just hit me: maybe the fire department here has a paging system. Maybe I can get them to add my name to the list. Why not ask? After all, the worst they can do is say no.

So, on whim I stopped in at the Kalispell Fire Department to see Chief Dave Dedman. The odds of him being in the office when I’m there are astronomical, but I got lucky and he was in. I explained my idea and the next thing I know I am getting text messages from Dispatch that read like this:
Unit: 631
Status: Dispatched
Location: 28 Appleway Dr Kalispell
Call Type: F Grass/ Brush/ Wildland Fire
Call Time: 17:28

This text was just a few days ago.I went out looking for that one, but I didn’t see the fire. Eventually I spotted the fire engine, but they looked like they were trying to turn around in a tight apartment complex parking lot. Sometimes the text messages don’t lead to brilliant photos, but regardless, I am always glad to get them. I’d rather take the chance, head out and have to go home empty handed, then miss out on something that could be really cool.
Well, once things started going so well with the fire department I decided to see if I could expand this. I got in touch with the Sheriff’s Department SWAT team and basically introduced myself, told them what I was interested in, and took the first steps toward getting these very serious people, who all have a very serious aversion to the media, to let me in at least a little.

It’s gone better than I could have hoped.

No, they don’t trust me yet, and frankly some of them never will. But I’m working on that. And I’m willing to take the time to do it. And part of earning that trust comes with training photos. My theory is the more they see me around, and get used to me photographing, the better my chances are of getting them to ignore me and just let me document them when things are happening for real.

As it currently stands when I photograph the fire department their first reaction seems to be: see the camera and run away. It happened yesterday. I was photographing a HazMat spill and one of the guys literally saw me and starts walking backwards. I know it’s not me personally that they are avoiding, but still, I have got to get this to stop.

Back to the training photos.
On Saturday the fire department supervised the burning of a house on property purchased by the fairgrounds. This was incredible. A two story house was reduced to a scrap heap in less than an hour. And I got to be there for the whole thing, getting closer to the fire than I ever would have been allowed to be if this were real.

Let me start with a timeline.
I got there a little before 10. Just in time to chat with a few of the guys and watch Dave and Kirk (Cpt. Pederson of C Shift) head into the house to do a room-by-room check to make sure no one had sneaked into the building. They knew, far better than I, exactly how much time this wouldn’t take to become deadly.
10:02:15 Pederson checks the storm basement
10:07:01 fire started in back room on the north west corner
10:10:27 add dry leaves and bits of kindling
10:13:35 fire climbs the wall
10:13:48 fire begins rolling across the ceiling
10:15:06 fire begins pour out of the windows
10:15:50 fire clearly seen in second story window
10:17:33 the whole house is on fire
10:35:59 the house begins coming down
That’s just over half an hour. Now obviously, since the goal of this is to destroy the building rather than save it, the firefighters are not out there working to put the fire out. They’re letting it burn and basically keeping the fire contained by wetting the trees and ground around the structure. But the reality check in this is the fact that this is exactly how fast it would go if the fire department wasn’t there at all. Think about that. No fire department. Your house is on fire and half an hour later everything you have has been destroyed and if your really lucky it’s only your possessions that are lost, not your life.

Believe it or not there are some people out there who don’t like the fire department. I was shocked to learn this. What’s not to like? These are the guys who come when your life is going up in flames and rescue you. How do you not appreciate that? Well, it seems that some people think the fire department is a waste of tax payer dollars that could be spent elsewhere. My thinking is that these people (idiots) will only think that until the day their house is the one being swallowed up in fire and smoke. Then there are the people who complain about the fire engines using their sirens as they race through traffic to get to the fires. Apparently they’d like it better if the fire trucks had to follow the same traffic rules as everyone else. Look at the timeline. I spoke with Dave about this on site. I could not get over how fast it all went. He said this is exactly the reason he is always pushing response time. He wants the firefighters to constantly be working on improving their response time. They need to be safe, but they need to get on site as fast as possible. And Saturday really brought that home to me, because in half an hour, it can all be over.
This started so small. Kirk sat in the window sill with a small propane torch. They had pulled tree branches and some debris into the house, but there was no other fuel or accelerant used to start the fire. I really wanted to be inside the house for these photos. Yes. I know this is rather crazy. And of course, try as I might, I could not talk them into letting me do this. It’s not like I wanted to stay in the house while it’s burning down around me, I just wanted to stand in the doorway and take shots of the fire getting started. I would have left. Rapidly, in fact. Just as soon as the fire got going. But they were adamantly against my plans and so I only got shots from outside.
Truth be told, if I had been allowed to be in there I know exactly what I would have done. I would have seen the fire rolling across the ceiling, knelt, and taken those shots, and then run for the door. That’s the picture I really wanted. It would be incredibly dangerous/stupid to take that photo, but that is the one in my mind that really shows how deadly fires are. Fortunately for me I am working with people who want to keep me safe, even if that means protecting me from my own stupidity. Once the fire was going, and I realized how much danger I would have been in, I apologized to both Dave and Kirk for whining at them when they denied my request to enter the house.
As I watched from the window at how quickly the fire raced up the wall, how it grew and consumed, over and over all I could think was “Oh my God.” It was one of the firefighters who gave me the term ‘rolling’ in reference to the way the fire moved across the ceiling. It looked almost like waves. Beautiful. Powerful. And vicious. I would have stood there for a bit longer, but someone pulled me back. I was told I had to stay outside the collapse zone, that is at least as far away as the firefighters. It wasn’t too very long until standing closer than the firefighters was impossible. The heat coming off this thing was intense.

I wish the photographs could convey that. It was a cold day. Before the fire started I thought about going back to my truck to get my jacket, but I figured things would warm up once the house was on fire — massive underestimation on my part. I got burned. Not painfully. And not because I was too close. The radiant heat put off by this thing was enough to pinken up my skin, it looked like I was sun-burned, but it was from the fire. I watched the guys sweating it out in their suits. Even their protective gear only does so much. Dave told me that sometimes at fires when they are in their gear they will sweat and end up getting steam burns. Really? Chalk that up to one more job hazard for firefighters that I wasn’t even aware of.
We didn’t even use these photos for the paper. I put them up in a folder on our facebook page, but in the end Saturday’s photos were once again about making connections and earning trust. That’s what I want most out of all of this. I want to win their trust. I want to be able to photograph them in whatever situation, and have their be no question in their minds about whether or not they will live to regret having me there. I want to make photographs that show these people (military, cops and firefighters — my heroes) doing the incredibly hard jobs that they do. They don’t get enough thanks for the risks they take, and I would like to be part of changing that.