Written by Victoria Caruso-Davis Friday, 12 March 2010 00:00
Michael Heller has delved into the nearly 200-year history of New York’s firematic drill teams through his new book, Chariots of Firefighters – The History and Practice of Firematic Competition in New York State. The self-published work is the first of its kind to pay tribute to what Heller calls a “long-standing sport and pasttime.”
Chariots of Firefighters, which took two and a half years from start to finish, chronicles the birth and rise of these contests – from foot races and fistfights between neighboring fire companies in New York City to the formation of the New York State Volunteer Firemen’s Parade and Drill Team Captain’s Association and the over 350 teams from over 260 fire districts that make up its 200-year history. According to Heller, the 325-page book is geared toward anyone with any interest in history, the fire service or sports in general.
“From simple hand-pumping duels to modern-day drills of speed and refined technique on specially-built tracks with custom apparatus, the story of how these competitions evolved – through wars, riots and celebrations, public scorn and the wild praise of cheering throngs – is one that anyone with any interest in the fire service – or even sports in general – will want to read,” said Heller, adding that many of Long Island’s drills teams – including, on a local front, the Westbury Turtles, Carle Place Frogs and the East Meadow Meadowlarks – have been participating in firematic tournaments sanctioned by the New York State Volunteer Firemen’s Parade and Drill Team Captain’s Association (tournaments, both locally and in other parts of the state, for nearly two centuries.
Heller said the idea for Chariots of Firefighters came while photographing local drills for the Long Island-based monthly Fire News magazine. His experience covering such events made him realize that while there was a “wealth of history” in the sport, no one had yet collected or compiled it – until now.
“It was all just in people’s heads or in boxes in garages. No one had actually written a complete history before,” he said, adding, “My book is the very first [to] document the entire history of this sport.”
After a series of unfavorable articles on the sport appeared a few years back in Newsday, Heller said writing the book became even more important. “The drill teams have lately gotten a bad rap; if people knew the history of them, and just how significant the sport has been in New York’s history, they might understand a bit more why these teams have been - and are - so important,” he said. “There was, for a time, a very real fear that the sport could die due to public disfavor. I felt it would be a tragedy if that were to happen, with no history of everything that had gone on to have been documented first.”
In addition to Fire News, Heller, a writer and photographer for 28 years, has written and illustrated numerous articles for Firehouse Magazine and National Fire & Rescue Magazine. Through photos, Heller as documented involvement of the fire service at such events as the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, Spring Break in Panama City Beach, FL, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City UT and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, LA. His writing and photography have earned Heller numerous awards, including a 2004 Grand Prize “Golden Firefighter Award” in the international Bombero de Oro (Fire Photography Contest) given in Spain. He has also been the recipient of several first place accolades from both the New York Press Association and International Fire Photographers Association.
While Chariots of Firefighters is the first book he’s written, it is not Heller’s first published work. In 1996, he founded the stock photography agency 911 Pictures and 8 years later released The Resplendent Demon, a collection of dramatic fire images taken by 16 different photographers. Heller is currently working on a follow up to Chariots of Firefighters. Where Volume I focused on the “history,” Volume II will emphasis the overall firematic “practice,” including outlining how the New York State Volunteer Firemen’s Parade & Drill Team Captain’s Association was organized while also focusing on the tracks, trucks, equipment, contests, rules, etc.
“[It will be] a kind of ‘field guide’ to the sport for those in the stands and any others who might be interested,” said Heller, adding that he hopes to have it completed by spring 2010.
Heller maintains an online profile of this work at www.hellercreative.com. To order a copy of Chariots of Firefighters, Volume I, visit http://cof.911pictures.com. For information on The Resplendent Demons, visit http://www.911pictures.com/books_demon.phtml.