GCU Firehouse Video to Give Cancer Kids the Ride of Their Life

Story by Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Photos by Tim Winzeler

The film crew from Grand Canyon University had barely arrived at Fire Station 9 when sirens went off and firefighters began spilling out.

“Are you the film crew from GCU? We can take two of you,” one firefighter said hurriedly as the five GCU students were walking up to the front door.

As the adrenaline rush kicked in, Mike Myers and Bryce Bowen grabbed their video equipment and jumped aboard the fire truck, sirens blaring, en route to an emergency call for a person having a seizure.

And with that, the students’ glimpse into the life of a firefighter began — an experience they chronicled with a 13-minute documentary video that will be shared with cancer patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital on Thursday afternoon.

“I think kids in general will love this,” said film student Janna Strutowski, who will be a senior in the fall. “The fact that we had college-aged kids looking over our shoulders and going ‘Wow, that is really neat’ really encourages me that the little ones will like it as well.”

A day in the life

That first emergency call came during a meet-and-greet session with members of the Phoenix Fire Department, and provided a glimpse of what was to come when the students returned to spend an entire 24-hour shift at Fire Station 9.

Their shift began at 7 a.m. and included a full day of training exercises with the firefighters, emergency calls at all hours of the day, meals and a trip to the grocery store.

What didn’t it include? There were no fires on this given day. No stereotypical shots of firefighters sliding down a pole (there isn’t one at Fire Station 9). “And no Dalmatian,” said Bowen, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in communications in May. “We gave them a hard time about that. How can you have a fire station without a Dalmatian?”

But what the students did see was eye-opening.

“Growing up, I thought they just saved cats from trees and put out fires,” said Bowen, who, like many kids, grew up with ambitions of becoming a firefighter.  “But it is so much beyond that.”

“I thought it was going to be like, ‘OK, let’s wait around for 15 hours and see if there’s a fire today,’” said Myers, who will be a junior in the fall. “But they’re constantly going on paramedic calls. They said 80 percent of their calls are paramedic-related.”

Among the emergency calls the students saw firsthand:

  • Car crashes.
  • An apparent drug overdose in which two females, among a group of five males, had been left on the front porch of a house at 4 a.m.
  • A water break when a vehicle crashed into a fire hydrant.
  • Paramedic calls for people having heart and lung issues and internal bleeding.
  • And even a disturbance around 2 a.m. in which a large group of transvestites was having a rave party — and at least one wasn’t too keen on seeing a video camera. “I had to explain what we were doing, that we weren’t showing anyone’s face,” Bowen said. “After that they calmed down.”

Strutowski said one of the firefighters apologized to the students because it was a slow day and they didn’t have more calls for them to film. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’” said Strutowski, of Phoenix. “That was eye-opening. There were some serious issues they had to deal with.”

The late-night calls were especially challenging for the college students.

“We are passed out because you’re sitting there for three hours in the dark,” Myers said. “Then you hear, ‘Engine 9 da da da da…’ and you’re like, OK, got to get up, get the camera, get in the truck and go within 30 or 60 seconds. That was kind of rough for us.”

Children’s inspiration

The film project was the brainchild of senior-to-be Nick Fanelli, who came up with the idea five years ago while working at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore.

Wednesday is bingo day at Doernbecher, but only about half the kids can make it down to the room where the bingo game is played. The rest participate via closed-circuit TV in their rooms.

“That idea has been rolling in my head forever,” said Fanelli, a business administration major. “I just started thinking about how much fun it would be to produce something local that the Children’s Hospital could air before or after bingo for the kids who can’t go out and experience something like that for themselves.”

When Fanelli later enrolled at GCU and began working at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, he saw the video class as a way to turn that vision into reality.

“We only had four weeks to kind of throw it together, but everybody I talked to — from the firefighters to the hospital and everyone involved in the project — every step of the way, the pieces just fell in place. It was way beyond me or any of us. I just really feel the Lord blessed this project.”

Assistant Professor Gregg Elder, who teaches a class in music video/documentary production, said it was an ambitious project, particularly toward the end of a school year.

“Five kids working on a documentary is about average, but it only works if they work together,” Elder said. “That’s what I was most impressed with. I was very impressed with how it all came together.”

The students began with 10 hours of raw footage and took turns spending more than 100 hours on the editing computer to whittle it down to the final 13-minute video.

The other challenge was making sure the documentary was kid-friendly and informative.

“We tried to simplify things as much as possible to appeal to kids … and use visuals to help them retain the information,” said Chiara Spence, a senior-to-be from Mesa.

Sense of family, community

Scott McDonald, a public information officer for the Phoenix Fire Department, said the Station 9 firefighters fell in love with the video idea immediately.

“The opportunity to help the film class at Grand Canyon, and to help kids at Phoenix Children’s Hospital … we were very happy to be part of it,” said McDonald, whose crew will accompany the film students Thursday for the trip to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “All the guys were on board. There was no hesitation at all, and they made the students feel like they were part of the station.”

That sense of belonging and camaraderie wasn’t lost on the GCU students.

“They’re a real tight-knit group because of what they do; there’s a lot of intensity in their job,” Fanelli said of the firefighters. “And the fact they invited us into it, that was cool.”

“Just the way they’re talking in the truck, you can tell they know each other so well,” Strutowski said. “It’s just a little extra family within the station.”

It extends beyond the firehouse walls as well.

“We went grocery shopping with them and everybody knew them by name,” Bowen said. “It was like being in a small town.

“I’m pretty sure we all had pretty high respect for the fire department. But then when we stayed there for 24 hours, it’s just eye-opening. … They really go above and beyond.”

Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or [email protected].


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