Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Burn Raises The Stakes On Detroit

Back in 2009, Time Magazine asked a pertinent question. Could the city of Detroit be saved? It's a difficult question to answer, knowing the population fell from 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 in 2010.

The drop in population has been dramatic, leaving thousands of homes and buildings vacant. As the city continues to struggle against decline, every new vacancy becomes a potential fire. And for the firefighters who work in the city, every call is potential killer. They get more calls than any other city, with one-half as many firefighters than they had in 1950 but a 300 percent increase in fires per capita.

Most days they are fighting a losing battle. The embattled fire department had suffered enough budget cuts and equipment shortages that duct tape serves as the fix all for everything from turn signals to broken boots. The firefighters are more likely to laugh about it than complain. They accept it.

Burn is a blazing documentary about dual subjects.

The 88-minute film captures a collage of firefighters, ranging from one looking forward to retirement and one looking back at the fire that left him paralyzed. Plenty of people wonder why they do it too.

Many of them in Detroit put their lives on the line for around $42,000 per year, which is manageable only if their salaries allow for overtime. The starting salary, according to the film, is only $30,000.

That is not to say that the film isn't balanced. There are several points in the film where accountability is demanded, even resurrecting a story of how one $700,000 fire truck was totaled because it was carelessly parked on a train track. It isn't an isolated accident. Some damage is caused by neglect.

The film works best in sound bites and story bits. 

There is no question that Burn is fueled by its concept and potential to go beyond the screening. It mostly follows the crew of Engine Company 50, which is one of the busiest firehouses in America. But sometimes the story becomes sidetracked rather than truly dig deep into the men or out into the bigger problems facing Detroit.

They do, however, ascend to the perspective of Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, a lifelong firefighter who worked his way up in Los Angeles. He was recruited to be in charge of more than 46 firehouses that respond to at least least 30,000 fires and 130,000 medical emergencies per year. While he holds the firefighters he leads accountable, Austin also responded to budget cuts by laying off his office's one janitor. He cleans his own office now.

In addition to Austin, they spend the most time with 33-year veteran David Parnell, field engine operator. He epitomizes both a long-time Detroit resident and lifelong firefighter, neither ready to retire nor leave his neighborhood despite having eight empty homes on his block alone. Another is Brendan "Doogie" Milewski, who was paralyzed after a building collapsed on him. His struggle continues daily.

A few graphs about the filmmakers and their efforts.

The film was inspired by the tragic death of Detroit firefighter Walter Harris while battling a blaze in a vacant house. The loss sparked interest in the greater problem — why were firefighters risking their lives in neighborhoods that had been described as a mouthful of broken teeth?

This was the question that director-producers Tom Putnam and Brenda Sanchez asked when they decided to dig deeper into the content. With support from Denis Leary, five-time Emmy nominee and star of the television series Rescue Me, and Jim Serpico, president of Motion Pictures and Television at Apostle, they were off and running.

Detroit firefighters have already received $25,000 worth of gear, donated at the Tribeca premiere by Momentous Insurance and the producers have pledged that a significant portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Leary Firefighters Foundation. In fact, the fundraising structure of the film might be one of its most redeeming qualities.

Burn Lights Up Firefighting In Detroit At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While enthusiasts have called the film jaw dropping, a better descriptor is eye opening because it brings to life several problems that most people never knew existed — that the survival of Detroit remains bleak and that the issues facing firefighters are more complicated than most people would ever guess. But perhaps more important is that it also has heart. If not on the screen, then how it helps firefighters.

Burn by Tom Putnam and Brenda Sanchez is available on Amazon. You can also find Burn on iTunes or find out how you can support screenings for the film in your area.
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