South Jersey filmmaker's online series about firefighters is a hit

Director David Hernandez films Josh Hawk battling a Delaware car blaze for "Into the Smoke."
Director David Hernandez films Josh Hawk battling a Delaware car blaze for "Into the Smoke."
Posted: March 25, 2014

MEDFORD Once Kevin O'Toole's oxygen mask began to melt, he closed his eyes and said goodbye to his loved ones. The Bladensburg, Md., firefighter was pinned on his back in a room swallowed by fire, with none of his fellow volunteers in sight and nothing to listen to but the whoosh of the flames.

O'Toole had no choice but to accept that he was going to die.

Through the heroism of fellow firefighter Ethan Sorrell, who found O'Toole lying unconscious in the burning Maryland house, the 21-year-old was carried to safety, and is left with only a few burn scars to remind him of the day he nearly lost his life.

"I opened my eyes and all I could see was orange," O'Toole says in the March 14 finale of Into the Smoke, a Web series created by Medford native David Hernandez to document the challenges volunteer firefighters across the country face each day.

"We want to show people exactly what it is that firemen do," said Hernandez, 28, who has fought fires in Medford as a volunteer since age 14. "There's this stigma that firefighters just sit around in the firehouse and do nothing all day, which isn't the case. Even now, since there are fewer fires, people need to train and stay in shape more than ever."

Hernandez, a 2009 Drexel graduate with a degree in communications, said the idea for the series came to him while he simultaneously worked as a videographer for Subaru and fought fires in Medford as part of the Taunton Volunteer Fire Company. He began posting pictures of fires to his Facebook page, quickly piquing the interest of friends and relatives.

"People kept asking me, 'What do you guys do during the day?' " he said. "Eventually, I realized that this would be a great idea for a series."

The 10-episode series, which premiered online Dec. 20, chronicles the activities at two firehouses - in Bladensburg, Md., and Christiana, Del. - as the men respond to calls, eat meals, and spend time together in their respective firehouses. The series has more than 11,000 "likes" on Facebook.

Angered that municipalities such as Pennsauken and Camden had closed firehouses in recent years, Hernandez said he chose two towns with an exceptionally high volume of 911 calls to underscore the importance of keeping fire rescue teams properly funded. He said the typical suburban fire company in New Jersey gets 300 to 500 calls per year; the two towns he selected receive between 3,000 and 4,000 each due to the population density of the two areas.

Working without a fund-raising budget, Hernandez's eight-person crew from South Jersey - including two high school interns - shot and edited footage for the first season from October 2012 to August 2013, using whatever equipment the team already owned.

"[Except for] our interns, we all still had day jobs," said Hernandez, who now repairs firefighter breathing equipment for MidAtlantic Fire and Air. "We'd make the three-hour drive to Maryland on Friday nights, shoot all weekend, and then drive back for work on Mondays."

Now that the first season of the series is finished and online, Hernandez said he plans to use the footage to help raise awareness about firehouse closings across the nation. The Delaware Gardens Volunteer Fire Company in Pennsauken will close as of March 31.

"A lot of people don't know that in Camden, Ladder 2 and Rescue 1 [services] are just one team," he said. "If Rescue 1 is out on a job and they need a ladder, they have to go back and change trucks. Fires double every minute, so every extra second counts."

Before joining the production crew, cameraman Sean Crowley, 22, of Medford, said he had little experience with firefighting. He said he was struck by the bravery of the men he was filming.

"We'd ride up to burning buildings that I expected them to just spray water on from the outside," he said. "Instead, they'd run right into the place to check for people trapped inside. It was insane."

Though the team originally planned to pitch the series to a television network - the episodes are shot in seven-minute segments formatted for TV broadcast - Hernandez said its focus had shifted to securing advertisers for the online series, as well as raising money for equipment upgrades using the fund-raising website Kickstarter.

"We ended up ruining a lot of equipment," Hernandez said. "Being around hoses and water all day, stuff just gets wet."

He said if the second season goes as planned, the team will secure a sponsor that can donate helmet cameras so the public can see what the inside of a house on fire looks like.

For now, Hernandez just hopes his show will help stem the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters across America.

"Just because [fire rescue] is a service that someone might only use once in their life doesn't mean it's not important," he said. "An extra five minutes might not seem like a lot, but when it's your son or daughter hanging out of a window, that's the longest time of your life."


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