In the Papers - 1st Unit Fire & Safety

Experienced Firefighters Ensure The Safety Of Your Movie or TV Production, Crew & Set. (Fire & Medical)

Taken from the Toronto Star, December 28th, 1997

Meet the guys who take the film-biz heat

By Rita Zekas
Toronto Star Entertainment Columnist

When the going gets hot as cameras roll, these pro blazebusters keep thier c-o-o-o-l

The special-effects techies blow ’em up good.

The blazebusters from First Unit Fire & Safety (Canada) Inc. put ’em out.

These are the guys who make sure the special-effects sequences go off on the screen, not in the face of the leading man or woman.

They make sure the fireballs destroy the mock-up, not the rented house.

First Unit, made up of off-duty professional firefighters, supplies complete fire safety services in-studio and on-location for film, TV series and commercials. They even supply their own trucks.

Alan Sutton, who co-owns the Canadian branch with Dave Smith, was a firefighter in England for the London Fire Brigade before starting his on-set fire control company there in 1981.

His U.K. credits include Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, the Indiana Jones features, Star Wars – Return Of The Jedi, Batman, Aliens and Alien3, Never Say Never Again. A Fish Called Wanda and many more

He’s been in business this side of the pond since 1995. The company has worked on Bad Day On The Block, A Maiden’s Grave, Murder At 1600, Mimic, Dog Boys, Tom & Jerry, The Rescuers, The Big Hit, The Wall, Fast Track, Blackjack and Blues Brothers 2000, where they had to cut trapped stuntman Bob Minor out of his car with the jaws of life. Not surprisingly, stunt people love them.

“John Landis (director of Blues Brothers 2000) was so impressed with what we did,” Sutton recalled during an interview at First Unit offices on Eastern Ave. “We conducted ourselves differently to firemen in California. In California, they often find them sitting reading the paper. `Don’t wake up the sleeping firemen,’ Landis used to say.”

There are 20 GTA firefighters on the First Unit payroll. Six of them, including Sutton, were in the office: Dave Smith, Paul Kwiatkowski plus Rob McDonald, Paul Sukman and Randy Murrell.

‘It’s tough to see something burning and have to stand back’

Framed photos of stars and projects on which they’ve worked hang on Sutton’s office walls, a la Ed’s Warehouse. The guys rib him, dubbing his office “Al’s Firehouse.”

Who’d put up any resistance being rescued by these men? They could have been featured in the fabled Firemen Calendar. No wonder U.S. designer Cynthia Rowley uses firefighters in her fashion shows. “We’re all good-looking firemen,” Kwiatkowski kidded, “except for the token ugly one.”

Instant response time is one of the advantages of using First Unit over regular firefighters. Municipal firefighters could take longer to respond to the set in case of emergency and, when there, would also have to respond to any outside calls.

“If the special effects co-ordinator (who routinely calls them for the job) wants us to put the fire out, we’ll be there for backup,” Sutton explained. “If something goes wrong, we’ll be there. If a 911 call were to go in, it’ could be up to a 10 minute wait depending on the location before regular firemen could respond.”

But if there’s a fire in the vicinity, on the other hand, First Unit won’t respond.

“We don’t pretend we’re an emergency service, we’d call 911,” said Sutton.

But First Unit is fully trained in emergencies – from treating burns and performing CPR, to providing basic life support and treating wasp stings.

On The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, one of the actors was stung by a wasp. McDonald, remembering his mother-in-law’s cure, covered the sting with a paste of baking soda.

Fighting a fire on set is different from on the street, Sutton stressed. “A simple car explosion on the street, you just fire water on it. Here, it’s a good chance they have to change the camera angles, so they use carbon dioxide. You have to keep the integrity of the props. You use carbon dioxide. to put out flames without blowing away a setup so you can do multiple takes.” With their expertise, First Unit’s firefighters can save camera time. They know when to go in, they know how to get the maximum number of shots from a combustible scene – you can’t exactly burn Atlanta twice.

‘They added napthalene and it burned the roof around our heads’

“One of my first films in England was Life Force,” Sutton recalled. “The director anticipated six shots, he got 14. He was so pleased he sent us a box of champagne.”

“When fighting a fire, we’re taught to fight it aggressively,” Murrell elaborated. “On set, you have to wait for the full shot, unless you see something dangerous. It’s tough to see something burning and have to stand back, because you want to go in.”

In addition to providing a fire truck, safety checks, equipment, water supplies and fire safety consultation, Sutton and company act as consultants on the project. On one production they saved filmmakers from potential embarrassment by pointing out one of the film’s pseudo firefighters had his helmet on backward.

They also act as firefighters on screen. They’ve appeared on camera in Due South, Murder At 1600, Critical Choices, FX: The Series, Earth: Final Conflict, Half Baked and The New Ghostwriter Mysteries.

What about the risk factor? “It’s as dangerous as you want it to be,” Sutton said. “I nearly got killed on the job in England. It was a John Boorman movie, Hope And Glory. ”

“They built a house on an old airfield they burning the upstairs, there were 2 of us upstairs ready to put the fire out. The effects did it four times. Boorman said, “Not enough glow in the fire.” They added naphthalene and it burned the roof around our heads. “There are no injuries on this (job),” McDonald interjected, “except when the camera gets you at a bad angle.” In fact, McDonald and Murrell have been decorated in their GTA jobs for rescuing an elderly woman in a backdraft situation and almost losing their lives in the process. ”

So how many firefighters does it take to put out a movie fire?

It depends on the stunt. On the TV-movie Borrowed Hearts, they had only one man wielding the fire extinguisher.

On The Big Hit, there were seven firefighters, then six on Blackjack, including a huge fireball that made toast of a million-dollar home, owned by a doctor.

In reality, it was an add-on that was set ablaze – the home was unscathed, give or take a little soot. “Gasoline burning, black powder, a few minutes and it’s gone,” summed up McDonald. “I was running the pump, a fireball went up and when they yell `cut’ we go in. It exploded away from the house, the minor damage was just a bit of soot – all those knickknacks in the house and nothing was destroyed by the blast. But someone knocked over a prop dog. We were trying to Krazy Glue it.”

“It was a wide house,” Murrell continued. “I had to check the interior of the house, to make sure the attic and rooms were okay. We checked floor by floor; six of us did that shoot.”

“One man was in the house, one running the pump truck,” McDonald enumerated. “Three or four running the hoses, one on each side of the house, unbelievable lengths of hose to protect that house. Al was co-ordinator.“ They’ve worked with lots of celebs. As to who was most impressive . . “Tell the Harrison Ford story,” they urged Sutton.

“We were in England doing Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom,” Sutton obliged, “and every Friday, we contributed a one-pound note (about $2 Cdn.) to a pot. You put your name in, threw it in and (director Steven) Spielberg would draw it. On the last Friday, it was 5 pounds each. Harrison Ford won and it was a lot of money. He took the bag of money, went to the parking lot, found the oldest car and put the money on the seat. It was just the shabbiest car, he didn’t know who owned it.”

Time for the men to go to their regular non-movie jobs. They asked if I wanted a lift – in the fire truck.

Did I? Are you kidding?

But they wouldn’t let me mess with the siren. As a precaution, it had been turned off.

We pulled up to The Star. Where did I want to get let off?

At the fire hydrant, of course

1st Unit Fire & Safety

We provide fire cover, protection, emergency medical service and advice to Film Units and all other
areas of the entertainment industry, whether in a studio setting or out on location.