DEADLY FLAMES: The Public an Intimate Look at Fire

“DEADLY FLAMES”: The Public an Intimate Look at Fire

500,000 people received a real fire education through live footage of controlled burns, from both the exterior and interior.

(Photos courtesy of Farmington Hills Fire Department.)

Every once in a while an organization is given the chance to “make something happen.” Sometimes an opportunity presents itself that is definitely out of the ordinary and requires quick action and a willingness to take a risk. The Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department was presented with such an opportunity when a local television station inquired about the possibility of conducting a live training burn to serve as the focus of a onetime, live, prime-time fire safety show. The proposed public service program would illustrate the dangers of fire, the job of the firefighters, and the need for fire safety education.

Beginning with a phone call from WDIV-TV Channel 4 in Detroit (an NBC affiliate), the wheels were set in motion for a television event that had never before been tried in the metropolitan Detroit area. We accepted the challenge. By accepting, our department was taking some big risks. Would the fire “cooperate” and burn according to schedule? Would the firefighters perform as trained? Would the cameras be able to show the real dangers of fire and firefighting? The potential benefits outweighed the risks involved. Work began immediately.

The initial contact was made by a producer who felt that a live training burn would both attract viewers to a prime time show and provide a valuable public service. An inordinate number of tragic fires had occurred recently in the Detroit area, focusing public attention on fires and fire safety. The concept was to provide coverage of a live training exercise, as one might a sporting event, to capture the true essence of firefighting, not w hat the public perceives from Hollywood films. News reporters would be present to comment on the fire as well as to provide fire safety tips. Ihe program was to be shown from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night. The initial agreement was reached and a working relationship was established.

Initially, we wanted to involve many fire departments to establish the story as common to all communities. The Southeastern Michigan Fire Chiefs Association and representatives from the city of Detroit agreed to participate. Members of departments from the Detroit area were interviewed and their activities tracked in advance; the night of the live burn, tapes from these inverviews would be interspersed with live footage. In addition, the chief of the Detroit Fire Department would be on hand the night of the event to talk specifically about urban fire problems. Essentially, the Farmington Hills Fire Department would provide the “props” and the backdrop for the show.

The next step was to acquire residential property that could be utilized. With the cooperation of the city’s planning department, we contacted a developer who agreed to donate two houses located on the same parcel of property This was an ideal situation because it would allow for continual fires, alternating between each home.

Burning down a house is no easy task-even when you are not under pressure to make things happen “on schedule” during a live telecast. Fortunately, our department has been actively conducting live training burns on a yearly basis.

Our experience includes separate drills conducted on commercial properties (a former golf and country club, multiple houses at one time) “live” for a short feature on a television program and with reporters as part of a news program. However, the idea of conducting a burn for one hour during prime time presented a different kind of challenge.

Preparation and planning would be key factors in conducting this event. The site had to be made safe, neighbors notified, utilities disconnected, and fire apparatus accessibility established. Regardless of the program’s needs and the producer’s desires, the operation had to be conducted safely for all participants, especially the firefighters.


The first requirement for the show was to conduct some minor burns to provide interior shots for promotion before and file footage during the live television event. Through mutual agreement between the fire department and the show’s producers, six such fires would be utilized —a kitchen fire; a bedroom fire, which would simulate the results of children playing with matches in the closet; a living room fire, which would simulate the results of careless smoking; two bedroom fires set up to be identical (one of which would be protected with an automatic sprinkler); and a fire simulating the results of a kerosene heater malfunction.

With this plan in mind, we set out to acquire the necessary props and equipment. We obtained help from local furniture stores, the city’s public works department, and the city’s solid waste contractor. The rooms were set up to best represent a typical home in preparation for the burns.

In addition to providing a training burn for firefighters, the situation also would provide some basic training for the reporters who would be covering the live burn. They were fitted with turnout gear and given instruction in the use of SCBA. Each scene was videotaped before the fire, during the fire, and after extinguishment, providing the television station with valuable “B-roll” (a television term for background video that can be used at any time). Once these burns were completed, the site had to be secured, cleaned up, and set up for the live prime-time television burn.

In addition to the work required on the structures’ interiors, the site needed further preparation. The live broadcast required the staging of a 45foot production trailer and multiple satellite transmitters mounted on vans. These units would have to be close enough to the houses to allow for coverage but far enough aw-av to allow for fire vehicle access. Firefighting personnel needed to be informed about and prepared for the operation. We maintained the posture that although the burns were scheduled as a newsmedia event, our primary objective would be to provide valuable training for firefighters. We also were conscious of NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions in Structures, and followed its guidelines.

The actual training was coordinated with the television personnel. A script had been written establishing a time line based on the fires that were to be set. The initial script was submitted to the fire department for review and feedback. The first fire called for a simple initial attack on a room-and-contents fire. During the second fire, the program would focus on following firefighters as they performed search and rescue and recovered a rescue dummy. The third fire would be set in a kitchen to establish a kitchen fire, and the fourth and last fire would involve at least half of one of the houses.

A firefighter prepares a reporter for entry. The media followed firefighters as they performed initial attack of a room-and-contents fire and search and rescue operations.Firefighters, watching a TV monitor on the action inside the building, provide commentary for home viewers.

After the basic script was agreed on, the only question remaining was, Would we be able to make fire visible at the times necessary for the show? If we could do this, it would show the real world of firefighting. There would be no fake smoke—only real heat, real sounds, and real dangers. Timing would be critical. We were fortunate to have two houses, which would allow us to start a fire and continue operations until suppression was complete. If the fire could not be extinguished within the specified time period (until the next commercial), we had the option of going to the second home. This would allow the program to keep moving and would help maintain viewer interest. The flexibility this would provide would be important in establishing options for adjustments should unforeseen circumstances occur.


On the day of the show, both the fire department and the television production crews still were doing much preparation. Everything had to be ready to go at 8:00 p.m. Although a few minor problems arose, such as changes in equipment placement and in the script, cooperation and teamwork solved them quickly.

The show began as scheduled, with fire coming out of three windows while the reporter provided the introduction. The next action-packed hour included a mixture of raw firefighting, TV reporting, and fire safety messages. Through the four training evolutions, the viewing public was shown the reality of fire. They saw how dark smoke is, how limited visibility is inside a fire, the speed at which a fire can spread, the need for well-trained firefighters, and the need to have a plan to get out of their own homes. It was a very fast hour that proved to be interesting and informative.

Based on the station’s ratings, it was estimated that more than a half million people saw the show. How long would it take the fire service to deliver the message to that many people face to face?

The benefit of all the hard work was satisfaction by both WDIV-TV, which got “good television,” and the fire service, because a fire safety message had been delivered to hundreds of thousands of people in a short period of time. In addition, firefighters were portrayed in a very positive light. It proved to be a great deal of work, but by accepting the opportunity, taking a chance, and showing confidence in our personnel, we very well may have saved a few lives

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