An introduction to a filming career capturing the bravery
of firefighters nationwide over the past ten years.
When I began filming with the San Francisco Fire Department in December 2003, almost 10 years ago now, I was a stranger with a camera in hand, and the firefighters in San Francisco were hard-pressed to trust me and my team - rightfully so. My first day on the job filming in San Francisco was eventful to say the least. Just to get the filming permit to allow my micro-production company to film with the department was quite a hurdle. What a day that was; we jumped right in, driving around San Francisco filming out of the roof of my SUV with the co-producer driving. It was on: I was on a mission to capture the moments only few experience day-to-day.
Here, I want to share with you what I first recognized in regard to firefighters - what they see, how they react, and how they may or may not show it or talk about it.
After filming with a few different stations with the San Francisco Fire Department, in 2005 I was placed at a new location, Station 7 in the Mission District. When I arrived at this location, the driver/engineer of the truck jumped off the rig and screamed at me to get out of his station. He was removed within ten minutes, and I was quickly apologized to. By this point, I knew what it was like to be the new guy with the camera and the time it took to get acquainted and really develop a sense of trust with the firefighters. It has never been easy to get an interview - it still is not.
Up to this point, most of the calls were minor, and we were filming more training than anything. Soon enough though, I experienced a call that was my introduction to the dangerous pathogens that are out there - pathogens that can eventually kill first responders - which firefighters and EMS personnel are exposed to on a regular basis, even while responding to a routine call with a person passed out in a hallway.
This was a call with only an engine company. We arrived on scene to find a man down on the floor in the hallway on the second floor of a standard three-story/twelve-unit-apartment house in the Mission District of San Francisco. When we arrived on the second floor landing, the man was about 15 feet away from me lying against the left wall. The firefighters are always first on scene. They all had their gloves on, and back then in 2004, only some wore safety glasses. The patient was face down and had to be turned and laid on his back to check to see if he was breathing. When they turned the man over, he began spewing vomit that was lime green in color, and some of it landed in the faces of the first responders. One had fluids hit his eyes.
I had moved about 20 feet away down the hall, and as I found out later, I was very lucky I had. This man had asphyxiation and was choking on his vomit. Once they opened his airway using suction, they got him breathing, packaged up and put in an ambulance. Only later did they find out that their patient had not only hepatitis C but also tuberculosis. They all had to go over the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island, where they do most of their training, and de-contaminate themselves. Their clothes had to be burned. They all had to go to the hospital and get a vaccination, and that was when I saw it on their faces: the real concern of what could happen to them down the road. Nothing was said.
For our county's first responders, each and every call - even the seemingly "easy" ones - has the possibility of killing them. Very few of them think about it, and the public has no idea.
Different than police officers who take the chance on each and every traffic stop of getting shot and killed, this death may happen years down the road and come out of nowhere.
That is when I began to see the dangers of the job, even on a very basic EMS call...
The ever-present danger of every EMS call.
Then, a few days later, I was out on calls with the crew from Engine 7 out of Division. A young boy on a bicycle had been hit - we were the first on scene. They quickly went to work getting the young boy's vitals. You could see by the looks on their faces that this was a critical situation. They got him stabilized as the ambulance arrived on scene. He was quickly packaged up and secured to the gurney. They safely got him secured in the ambulance, and it was off to the hospital.
We got back in the engine and the firefighters on both sides of me were on the phone; one with his wife to see if their son of the same age was ok, and the other called his sister to make sure his nephew was ok. The HIPPA rule being what it is across North America, firefighters are not allowed to call the hospital or even cruise the halls of the hospital to see how their patient did - they live a life without closure. Some like this; many do not. They would like to know they did a good job.
This is when I saw the true compassion that is often overlooked when you think of a brave firefighter.
Next time, I'll be with Washington D.C. Fire and EMS.
About David Furtado
David Furtado is a passionate filmmaker and photographer who has been granted special access to film the day-to-day lives of firefighters across the country. From San Francisco to Washington, D.C., David spends weeks at a time embedded with fire departments capturing every moment in order to share firefighters' courageous, real stories with the rest of America. David's production company, Tule Fog Productions, is currently working to bring a reality series on the subject to television in 2014.