At the end of 2020 I was contacted by Lani Riley who had watched my documentary Brave Are The Fallen. She thought that her reaching out must have seemed odd, but I assured her that I receive similar messages often. She then asked if I would be interested in helping her do a documentary that has been a passion idea of hers for some time now. Firefighters selflessly protect us on a daily basis, but even our heroes can suffer from injury, illness, and PTSD. She wanted to tell their story and bring to light this hidden issue. One that exists “Behind The Smoke.” This was a personal issue for her as her husband also suffered from these ailments. I was of course excited for the opportunity to create another firefighter documentary.
Because Lani had confided in me that her husband was a firefighter who also suffered from on the job illness, I could instantly see that this was a personal story for her. The following is the YouTube video that she had made with the Alzheimer’s Association to support legislation to extend services to early onset.
On the day of the fire, Michael Riley and some of his crew had been doing CrossFit exercises when the alarm at the fire station went off. It was 97 degrees that day with a heat index. He was already hot and sweaty but they suited up and went to a gas station that was on fire due to an explosion. Michael and Captain Hines were first on scene. They parked close and set up lines. So close that when the above ground tanks let go and started exploding, it melted parts of the fire trucks. They quickly moved the trucks and saved what they could of their equipment. Several other mutual aid responses came shortly after.
After six hours of fighting that fire in the scorching heat and flames, Michael went back to the station and took a shower. His gear was deemed hazardous. They had only been commissioned one set of gear per firefighter, so he threw away his bunker coat and pants, but continued to wear his hoodie, helmet, gloves and boots. He did not receive a replacement set of gear for a few months after that and had to continue wearing those items for subsequent fires.
To help me in putting this documentary together, Lani brought several contacts to be interviewed and help spread the word about this documentary. We ended up putting an announcement out through The Bureau of Fire Standards and Training at Florida State Fire College for the National Fire Registry to help find those who have suffered from illness, cancers, injuries, and PTSD while on the job. Many responded and ended up interviewing for us at local fire stations.
My thought process for Behind The Smoke had two themes. One focused on what goes on behind the scenes. Not just at the firehouse, but within the privacy of a firefighter’s home where he might be struggling, but too proud to ask for help. The second was the physical aspect as I wanted to focus on injury to the body such as Michael’s story, but especially P.T.S.D. as I have a personal interest in that subject after watching my grandfather go through that as a veteran. I wanted to give a voice to our firefighters who fight to protect us. If they are protecting us, who fights to protect them?