Volunteer firefighters are among the most important people in our communities, yet far too often they are overlooked.
It’s a conclusion Chris Ramirez, a cinematographer and photographer, came to after serving alongside Sullivan County’s volunteer first responders, and he hopes his newest film and photography project - “Sullivan Fire: the Documentary” - will shine a light on their valuable contributions. Ramirez, a volunteer interior firefighter with the Rock Hill Fire Department, has taken a hiatus from active service to work on the project.
The idea for his documentary was inspired by his work with the county-wide Join Sullivan Fire initiative, a recruitment and retention task force organized by the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire.
Sustaining the numbers needed to crew-up a volunteer fire department requires innovative thinking, and departments are seeking new ways to attract and retain members, Ramirez said. The demands of modern life have made it increasingly difficult for people to commit, but without robust fire departments, residents are left vulnerable.
“(The Join Sullivan Fire Task Force) is reaching out to a wider array of people, people with diverse backgrounds, people who perhaps never even considered the volunteer fire service,” Ramirez said. “We're working hard to help people discover the rewards of serving your local fire department and realizing the vital contributions they can make.”
Kelly Taggart, Captain of the Westbrookville Fire Department who has been a firefighter for 11 years, is one of the dozen firefighters featured in Chris Ramirez's film, “Sullivan Fire: the Documentary.”
“Sullivan Fire: the Documentary,” Ramirez said, will provide insight into the courageous decisions our volunteers make, and introduce audiences to these first responders who, literally, are also their neighbors.
“On call 24/7, volunteers can go from playing catch with their daughter to carrying someone else’s child to an ambulance,” Ramirez said. “They leave their jobs, families, and beds, stepping out of their everyday lives and into bunker gear, racing to the rescue.”
As a member of the Join Sullivan Fire Task Force, Ramirez and its members work to inspire others to join. He added that serving doesn't always involve going into a burning building; there are many ways to support fire departments. Helping out at the station, driving the trucks, and aiding at the scene are also part of the volunteer job.
Ramirez admits that he can get anxious when the pager tones go off. He’s fought fires, and he understands the risks. Initially, he said, it's fear of the unknown, not knowing what the conditions you’ll encounter.
“On the way you visualize the scenario through experience and training,” he said. “You go over a check list of things you may have to do to mitigate the risks. Focusing on the job is our coping mechanism.”
But for those who do answer the call, being part of a fire department becomes more than just a job or a hobby – it becomes a way of life, a source of pride, a second family, and a vital service to the community, Ramirez said.
Pictured here, Ramirez photographs Daryl Prescott of the Rock Hill Fire Department during a day-long portrait session at the Wurtsboro Firehouse in March 2023.
As he pivots from the role of firefighter to documentarian, Ramirez will capture those experiences through his camera. He’ll interview firefighters at all stages of their careers, from first-timers to those who have been in the service for more than half a century, capturing their unique perspectives and experiences.
A preview of the documentary will be shown at the Narrowsburg Union’s digital gallery space this July and August. It will also be shown on a 16-foot screen and multiple monitors throughout the gallery, creating an immersive experience.
Brendon and Kathy Weiden, proprietors of the Narrowsburg Union, have been “very supportive of the project, allowing me to conduct interviews in their space,” Ramirez said. Also supporting the social media campaign is the Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Ramirez’s project is a testament to the power of art and storytelling in creating social awareness and appreciation for the unsung heroes of our communities. By sharing their stories, he hopes to honor and celebrate the bravery and dedication of Sullivan County’s firefighters and encourage others to join.
“Real-life superheroes are hiding in plain sight, and their story should be told,” Ramirez said. “They include a retiree working out at a gym, the parent in the stands at the high school game, and the tired office worker in line behind you at the convenience store. Some of your neighbors are strangers, but if things go wrong with you and you need help, they’re firefighters, and they will do their very best to save the day.”
Ramirez expects that the production of “Sullivan Fire: the Documentary” will take more than a year or so, during which he’ll be responding to scenes with his camera gear, documenting as his firefighter colleagues as they take on whatever emergency they’ve called to.
Says Ramirez, “I can’t wait to get back to active duty.”
Chris Ramirez, a cinematographer and photographer with over three decades of experience, including working for The New York Times, is producing portraits and profiles of volunteer firefighters from 40 fire departments across Sullivan County. The project is part of a campaign for the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire Recruitment and Retention Task Force called Join Sullivan Fire. The social media campaign expects to profile 60 plus firefighters.Each portrait and profile will roll out once a week on social media Facebook and Instagram.