Spotlight on firefighters

Site: Public servants help place a spotlight on their day-to-day world through a service that features emergency alerts and on-the-scene photos.

March 28, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Jim Goetz and Bill Milliken were cruising in Goetz's Ford Crown Victoria at 11:30 on a Friday night when they heard a call on their police scanner: a serious accident on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The two off-duty firefighters raced to the crash scene, jumped out of the Ford and squirmed their way into the mangled car to comfort the driver until paramedics and other firefighters arrived.

Then, they became journalists. Goetz unpacked a $4,500 digital video camera and began filming the action. Milliken whipped out another camera and began shooting digital stills. A half hour later, they uploaded Milliken's photos and posted a short story about the rescue effort onto their Web site, www.firehouse.tv. It's hard to get much faster than that.

As a result of these and similar efforts, FireHouseTV has become a popular destination for firefighters and fire buffs alike. Goetz launched his Web site in 1996, a year after he took over the Maryland Fire Network paging service, which broadcasts messages about traffic accidents, fires, shootings and other incidents to public safety personnel, enthusiasts and reporters, including several at The Sun.

While many companies offer similar paging services across the nation - including Firecom-Newslink in Maryland - Goetz is one of the first to offer updated photographs and descriptions of incidents on the Web.

Goetz, 39, who joined the Anne Arundel County Fire Department 21 years ago, is an admitted "adrenaline junkie" who drives a Crown Victoria because it "looks official" and gets him better access to fire and accident scenes. He also has installed an intercom system that pipes statewide police and fire radio calls through his entire house, except the bathroom.

He says he started the Web site to give his audience a place to get news about the fire service - something beyond the two sentences they receive about an incident over their pagers - along with information about new training methods. But he also wanted to satisfy something inside himself - his inner "newshound."

"I just love the news service," Goetz said. "There is a rush, no matter what you do. There are a lot of stories that need to be covered. This is another outlet for the public to see real-life stories that are happening. ... We want to be the first to tell people things."

The MFN Web site offers a cornucopia of updated information - mostly pictures - about recent accidents and fires. On one recent afternoon, it offered photos and short stories about a car crash in Halethorpe, a fatal tractor trailer accident in Baltimore County, a car-and-tractor-trailer collision in Howard County and trash container fires in Southwest Baltimore.

To give the site depth, Goetz tries to post a lengthy story about some issue or recent tragedy each day. He writes some of the stories; others he posts from other media outlets, including The Sun and The Associated Press.

The site gets about 30,000 visitors a month, generating 200,000 page views, but hasn't made a profit, Goetz says. The Maryland Fire Network, which consists of the Web site, paging service and a video production company, generated about $30,000 in revenue last year, just enough to break even.

The Web site feeds off the MFN paging service, which has about 8,000 subscribers. Most of those receive pages free via e-mail. Goetz, who constantly plugs www.firehouse.tv over his paging system, including this recent message: "Multiple Working fires in Frederick Co. cause nearly $250,000 in damage. Plus, a 6-year-old girl saves her mom's life with a phone book! See all these stories and more only on www.firehouse.tv."

Goetz said he hopes to expand the Web site to include Web broadcasts and video clips, and he's working on a print newspaper, too. "The fire service deserves its own media outlet," he said.

Rich in firefighting jargon, the site gets generally good reviews from its audience. "It gives a vivid account of our activities and how our fire department operates," said Battalion Chief Donald Heinbuch of the Baltimore Fire Department.

Several firefighters said they were particularly impressed by a series of photographs that showed a Baltimore firefighter diving out of a window and scrambling down a ladder head-first. This escape technique is a hot topic among fire departments nationwide, all of whom are looking for quicker ways to get their people out of burning buildings in an emergency.

Fire Inspector Michael Maybin, spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, said he liked the site's photographs and admired how quickly the photographers get to scenes. "It seems like they are right there on the spot of these fires," Maybin said.

Goetz attributes the swift reaction time to a network of 30 dispatchers in the Baltimore area, men who listen to police and fire scanners and then send messages to the paging service.

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