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Sure Fire

Fireman and author Earl Emerson smokes 'Ladder 49'

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In its ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation, Talking Pictures takes interesting people to interesting movies.

"I just want to say a couple things right off," begins Lt. Earl Emerson, the bestselling author (Into the Inferno, Vertical Burn) and longtime firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department. It is early Sunday morning, and Emerson is at home, gearing up to talk about Ladder 49, the new fire-fighting flick starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Emerson saw the film Friday night, before reporting to his station for a 24-hour shift, which he only just completed. It was, he says, an eventful two-dozen hours.

After sitting through an oxygen-mask class, Emerson's crew had fill-in duty, holding down the fort at another station while that crew went to mask class, a tricky situation, he explains, because every time there was an alarm, the visiting firefighters had to consult a map to see how to get to the fires, most of which turned out to be of the food-on-the-stove variety.

"Usually, you don't get more than one food-on-the-stove call in a shift," Emerson reports. "We had four in a row, so I don't know what was going on in Seattle last night."

The high point, in a personal sense, was when Emerson noticed a copy of his new book--the excellent kick-ass thriller Pyro (Ballantine; $24.95), about a pyromaniac who seems to hate firefighters--sitting on the bunk of a fireman whose station he was babysitting. As Emerson tells it, after debating the issue for a while, he finally grabbed the book and signed it, inscribing it with the manly message, "Thanks for saving my butt at that big fire last week. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here. Earl Emerson."

"I have no idea who the guy is," Emerson laughs. "But, hey, weren't we talking about the movie?"

Oh, yeah. The movie.

In Ladder 49, Phoenix plays a sensitive fireman trapped inside a burning building, tearfully flashbacking to all the most important moments of his life--first day on the job, first fire, first date, first kid, first work-related death--while his boss (Travolta) works the scene to find his fallen comrade and get him out of the flames.

"Let me just say," Emerson comments with a slight bad-boy chuckle, "if that guy, Joaquin Phoenix, was in our station, I would not want to be his partner. Everywhere he went, somebody got killed or fell through a roof. It's like, wow, this guy is bad news. We have people like that in the fire department--and I tend to avoid them."

Was it Phoenix's knack for getting into extreme-temperature trouble that alarmed Emerson, or the way the guy seemed always right on the verge of bursting into tears?

"Both," Emerson laughs. "The other thing is, these guys never seem to have any normal alarms. Every time the bell hit, it's like, 'Oh my God! Somebody's either going to die or get their faced burned off!' In a real station, you'd have a lot more calls to go help someone with diabetes check their blood sugar. We didn't see any of that."

In spite of the glaring absence of blood-sugar scenes, Emerson admits to enjoying Ladder 49. "It didn't have a plot and the actors weren't so great, but you know, it held up remarkably well when you consider all the deficiencies," he says. Recognizing that this isn't exactly high praise, Emerson adds, "It was an enjoyable tearjerker, a real five-hanky movie, wasn't it? Every time the bagpipes and the kilts came out, I started crying."

So . . . firemen do cry?

"Yeah, but I only cry at fire movies and war movies," he explains, "so it's OK."

Ladder 49 is destined to hold a special place in the hearts of firefighters, Emerson surmises, if only because it's a better flick than Backdraft. That film, with Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin, is still the focus of firefighter mockery, partly for its over-the-top fire scenes, but mainly, says Emerson, for the macho catch-phrases spouted by the fictional firemen.

"For years we were running around saying, 'You go, I go!'" Emerson chortles. "We'd go out on some routine aid call--something like helping someone with diabetes--and before going in to take her blood sugar we'd say, 'Hey man, you go . . . I go.'"

If being superior to Backdraft isn't enough to encourage one to see Ladder 49, Emerson offers this additional endorsement.

"It's a great date movie for firefighters," he assures. "If you're a fireman and you want to get laid, take her to see Ladder 49. It's a sure-fire winner."

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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