They're heroes and they're ours TV: The British are enthralled by a new documentary. It's full of heroism and humanity, and it's about the Baltimore City Fire Department.

November 17, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Two fires. Two shootings. One rescue.

And that's just in the opening hourlong episode of "Streets of Fire," a gritty documentary now airing in prime time that has British television viewers enthralled. Its subject: the men and women of the Baltimore City Fire Department.

The three-part series on Britain's Channel 4 was shot earlier this year by British filmmaker Paul Berriff, who has transformed Baltimore's firefighters into TV stars who display humanity and heroism. On Jan. 4-5, the Discovery Channel in the United States is due to air a slightly altered version of the documentary under the title "Firehouse."

The show features hard-working professionals like gray-haired firefighter Bob Wagner, who arrives on an accident scene near Patterson Park to free a policeman trapped in a squad car.

"Have you out in a minute, babe," Wagner tells the victim, as the roof of the car is popped off like a soda can top.

Paramedics Vera Thompson and Sheri Luck are tough-talking, no-nonsense rescuers. One moment, they're helping a woman cope with a miscarriage. The next, they're on Guilford Avenue and 21st Street, calming a 15-year-old boy shot in the groin. "We call ourselves road doctors," Thompson says.

Firefighter Steve Lockett helps answer the question of what makes people want to run into burning buildings. "It's just me and the fire and I put the whole thing out," he says.

The man behind the production is filmmaker Berriff, a wiry 51-year-old who says the thread that runs through all his shows is "life and death."

"Wherever I go, disaster always happens," says Berriff, whose documentary subjects include climbing expeditions, military rescue operations and a space shuttle mission. He even tagged along as a young Prince Charles encountered the rigors of military service.

During past productions, Berriff survived a helicopter crash and put down his camera to help execute a dangerous sea rescue. While filming the firefighting documentary in Baltimore, he was blasted by a steam cloud. But he kept filming.

When Berriff isn't making fly-on-the-wall documentaries, he oversees a rescue service on the Humber, one of Britain's more dangerous rivers.

But Berriff has a healthy respect for fire and the men and women who deal with blazes and other emergencies.

After filming a documentary on a fire station in Britain in the early 1990s, Berriff says he became interested in doing a show on an American fire department. He read in one trade magazine that Baltimore had some of the busier fire stations in the world, and he vowed to one day film there.

Berriff finally got financing for the series last year and persuaded the Baltimore City Fire Department to give him unprecedented access.

"What separates this film from others is the amount of time they were willing to invest in the project," says Ray Lehr, a deputy fire chief. "They learned what makes life on the streets of Baltimore so different."

Berriff and his crew arrived in Baltimore in April for three months of intensive filming. They lived in and edited the show out of Oldtown in East Baltimore, one of the city's two "super stations."

The crew spent time with Engine 13 in West Baltimore, two medic units, a rescue unit and the fire investigation unit. When the production ended, the crew donated a 12-seat passenger van to the fire department.

During the filming, friendships were forged, and the firefighters came away with respect for the filmmakers' professionalism.

"It was like taking the kids to DisneyWorld for the first time," says Lt. Bill Thompson, the fire department's incident safety officer. "They're excited, so you're excited."

"We let him see everything that went on," Thompson adds. "But we wouldn't let him do anything dangerous. I remember one dwelling we were in, part of the roof collapsed. We were on the second floor, and Paul wanted to go in the next room. I said, 'No, Paul, back up.' "

Did the film crew capture the life and times of Baltimore firefighters?

"They got it," says Lt. Don Fout, who was the crew's driver during the filming.

"We got caught in the middle of a shootout, as it was happening," he says. "They asked, 'Are we going to go in a bad neighborhood?' I assured them that we would. They were a little shocked at first. They couldn't get over the amount of violence, of guns on the street.

"They saw a couple of murders," Fout adds. "Good auto wrecks. Very good fires. I think it was a culture shock."

In the end, Berriff came away with terrific footage and wonderful personal tales. "Everybody in the Baltimore Fire Department looks like they come from central casting," Berriff says. "In this show, we've got these characters with fantastic personality. You could be watching a feature film.

"British television reviewers would watch the show and call me up and say, 'Is this a reconstruction drama?' And I'd tell them, 'No.' A few minutes later, they'd call me up with the same question. They couldn't believe it.

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