Playing with fire The busy West Side firehouse, dubbed the 'Wild Wild West' by firefighters, is featured prominently in the Discovery Channel series.

January 04, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

It was Joe Brocato's first night on the job. All was peaceful. His mind said it was time to catch a few nods. His body refused to go along. Sleep just wasn't going to happen.

"I remember my first shift working here, I lay in bed like this," says Brocato, arms by his side, simulating a stiff board. "I was just waiting."

But if you think Brocato was stressed, consider Reggie Session.

"You mean you laid down?" Session asks. He was afraid to go to the bathroom those first few shifts. "No one wants to get left behind," Session explains. "I was in the company for 30 days before I left to relieve myself."

The "company" is the Baltimore City Fire Department. And tonight, more than a dozen of its men and women will have their moment of fame.

It's all because a British television producer decided to make a slice-of-reality show about an urban fire department. He chose Baltimore, a city with one of the busiest fire departments in the world.

The resulting miniseries, "Firehouse," will start tonight on the Discovery Channel. The series has already been shown in Europe to rave reviews under the title "Streets of Fire."

Recently, some of the firefighters in the film gathered at the West Side firehouse on McMechen and McCulloh streets to talk about their experiences in the department and as TV subjects. The West Side firehouse figures prominently in the series. Baltimore firefighters who work there have dubbed the area "The Wild Wild West" because it's so active.

It is the busiest firehouse in the city, says Battalion Chief Hector Torres, a department spokesman. "Engine 13 had 3,800 runs last year," he says.

The firefighters work two 10-hour days, then come in for two 14-hour nights. They are off for the next four days. Four people each shift are assigned to Engine 13. The same number is assigned to Truck 16, which is also based at the West Side.

To say that the crew was leery when fame came knocking on the door is an understatement.

"I tried like heck to get out of it!" says Session.

"It was a little strange," says Lt. Paul Novak, a 24-year veteran in the department and a "star" of the series. Novak is the shift boss. He has a quiet air of confidence that comes through in person as well as in the film.

"Every day they came in and put a microphone on us. And one of the firefighters was outfitted with a coat with a small camera on it."

After a few shifts, the firefighters grew accustomed to the four-man film crew tagging along. "It was just like they kind of fit in," Novak says.

Crew was with them a month

The film crew stayed with the firefighters for the month of June. The cameraman rode on the fire trucks, but the sound-man and '' two production assistants followed behind in a van that was later given to the fire department.

Most of the firefighters will be seeing the series for the first time starting tonight. Novak, however, has seen all three parts, and, although he thinks there was too much focus on him, he is pleased with the results.

Some of the firefighters in the series are veterans; others have just a few years on the job. Most are married with children. Many have gone through divorces, and they cite the stress of the job and the odd hours among the reasons for the breakups.

Many tried other jobs before joining the fire department. They are also plumbers, electricians, jacks-of-all-trades during their off days.

Brocato and Session are now veterans. Sleep comes easily, and going to the bathroom is, well, routine. Brocato -- with the department for 17 years -- is a captain with Rescue 1, a division that is called to emergencies. Session, a 23-year veteran, is a captain with the Fire Investigation Bureau, which tries to determine causes.

As firehouses go, there is nothing special-looking about the West Side. The room where they eat meals has four refrigerators, one for each shift, a metal table and two sofas that have seen better days. This is home away from home for those who work here. And for some of them, becoming a firefighter was a family tradition.

"My father was in the fire department. He is retired," says Novak. "For years he bothered me to come."

Novak resisted at first and tried his hand at other jobs, but found them boring. "I was a computer operator. Doing the same job day in and day out. I couldn't see doing that for the rest of my life," he says.

Then he listened to his father.

He wasn't the only one. Michael Mrozinski listened to Novak's father too.

Novak and Mrozinski were friends who grew up in a South Baltimore neighborhood near Riverside Park. Mrozinski, now a 25-year veteran, is a captain with the Fire Investigation Bureau.

For a job high on the stress scale, at least to outsiders, these men speak about the fire department as if it were the best possible career move.

"This has been the best thing," says Arlen Doles, a pump operator at the firehouse.

"We get as much out of it as we give," says Brocato. "And we see the rewards right away."

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