The 11 Best Firefighter Documentaries


In popular culture, we have become “experts” on police. There are countless books, movies, television shows, and true-crime documentaries showcasing the valiant efforts of the men in blue. But there are less about firefighters.

Why do we think that is? After all, firefighting in America is one of the most colorful and dangerous jobs dating back 400 years. And more than 70 percent of the over one million firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers! Don’t you want to see what being a firefighter is really like?

Here are the 11 best firefighter documentaries you need to see:

  1. 9/11 (2002)
  2. BURN (2012)
  3. A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY (2014)
  4. American Burning: The Yarnell Hill Fire Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis (2013)
  5. Brave Are the Fallen (2020)
  6. Decade of Fire (2019)
  7. Man Alive: The Bronx is Burning (1972)
  8. The Battalion (2007)
  9. Into the Fire (2006)
  10. Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY (2005)
  11. American Experience: Triangle Fire (2011)

This isn’t Hollywood. These are real stories with real Firefighters. Keep reading to find out more about these documentaries, see some trailers and even the best places to find and watch these great films.

1. 9/11 (2002)

This real-life documentary follows the tragic events of September 11, 2001. James Hanlon (an actor and NYC firefighter) and French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were in New York City on that tragic day filming a documentary about a rookie firefighter. 

When they spotted the first plane hit the World Trade Center, they rushed to the scene. The footage captured on September 11 and in the subsequent days after the fall of the towers is haunting. 

Below is a clip from the film of the plane hitting the first tower.

This film constitutes some of the only first-hand footage of that day. Jules Naudet’s footage is one of three known recordings of the first plane hitting the North Tower. Their footage is also the only footage from inside the Twin Towers on that fateful day.

Where to watch:

2. BURN (2012)

This documentary is set in notorious Detroit, Michigan. The story of the firefighters is told through the eyes of the men from the Detroit Fire Department.

In a city with an ever-increasing number of abandoned buildings and decreasing department budgets, the firefighters of Detroit are determined to keep the city standing.

You can watch the trailer here.

The idea for BURN sparked after Walt Harris died in 2008 while battling an arson fire in an abandoned home. The question of why firefighters were risking their lives to save abandoned structures could not go unanswered. With the proceeds of the movie, more than $310,000 in equipment was donated to the Detroit firefighters.

Where to watch:

3. A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY (2014)

You may know Steve Buscemi for his accomplished acting, directing, or writing, or perhaps just his unmistakable look. However, he was also a firefighter in New York City from 1980 until 1984. After 9/11 occurred, Buscemi famously showed up at his old station and volunteered to help find survivors of the terrible attacks. 

This documentary explores what it is like behind the scenes to be a New York City firefighter with exclusive footage and first-person accounts from present and retired firefighters. The special highlights life as a firefighter in one of the most demanding cities and illuminates the life of these stoic heroes.

Watch the Trailer Below


Where to watch:

4. American Burning: The Yarnell Hill Fire Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis (2013)

This documentary from The Weather Channel showcases the incredibly devastating loss of 19 firefighters out of a 20-man crew. On June 30, 2003, the world watched in horror as the fires near Prescott, Arizona wiped out more than 500 acres of land and 100 homes.

Hotshots are a special type of firefighter. They only operate in Wildland firefighting, which is distinctly different than urban firefighting. These brave men and women work in small teams (20 to 22) and set out on foot with limited supplies and only enough water for themselves. Instead of directly putting out fires with water, hotshot crews mostly cut lines in the vegetation and clear out the fuel that keeps the fires going and establish fire breaks. 

In 2017, Joseph Kosinski directed Only the Brave, which is a feature film based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the infamous Yarnell Hill fires.

Where to watch America Burning:

Right Here

Where to watch Only the Brave (Feature Film):

5. Brave Are the Fallen (2020)

Brave Are the Fallen is a sad story about the dangers that firefighters are exposed to.

Thomas O. Wall was a Fire Captain in Orange County, California, and was known by all as a stoic, patient leader. He was a master of his craft and his craft was firefighting.

He served as a firefighter for 24 years before he died in the line of duty, on a wildfire in Riverside. He left behind his wife and 3 kids, as well as the legacy of the time he served.

This film was directed and produced by his nephew, Jacob Whitley, which is evident in the personal touch the film has.

Watch the trailer below

I really like the inside view shown, not just of Thomas as a firefighter, but of who he was as a person. I really recommend you watch this documentary.

Where to watch the full movie:

6. Decade of Fire (2019)

This documentary covers the story of an epidemic of fires in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Filmmaker Vivian Vazquez grew up in the South Bronx during the time of the fires and tells the story as a central character and co-director. 

The movie tells the untold history of how roughly forty fires a day burned down 80 percent of the housing and displaced a quarter-million residents. Left unprotected by their government, the multi-ethnic community banded together to build a future.

See the trailer here

Decade of Fire displays never-before-seen footage and home videos from the time. As well, testimonials from retired FDNY firefighters and police, Bronx historians, and community members. 

Where to watch:

  • PBS (as a KQED Passport member for $5 donation)
  • GoodDocs (very expensive)

7. Man Alive: The Bronx is Burning (1972)

Man Alive: The Bronx is Burning is a documentary from BBC Television. Screened in the United Kingdom in 1972, the documentary follows firefighters from South Bronx firehouses Battalion 72, Ladder 31, and Engine 82.

The Bronx is Burning chronicles the working conditions of the firefighters where they received roughly one emergency call per hour and experienced high rates of arson and malicious calls.

Man Alive was a documentary and current affairs series that ran between 1965 and 1981.

Where to watch:

Right Here

8. The Battalion (2007)

This one isn’t a normal documentary, it’s more a docu-series and has almost 200 episodes showcasing the “true reality and truly unscripted” lives of fire, rescue, and EMS through North and South America. For over a decade, they have been filming the real lives of the firefighters as they fight fires and save lives in cities across the US, Canada, and internationally.

Where to watch:

9. Into the Fire (2006)

Into the Fire captures first-hand stories from men and women firefighters, from small-town volunteer stations to big city engine companies. 

This documentary focuses on the life, rewards, and challenges seen universally by firefighters everywhere. Real-life firefighters discuss the daily challenges and rewards of their jobs, looking at urban rescues and battles with forest fires. 

The big screen does not embellish when depicting the bond between firefighters; the documentary shows a glimpse of the camaraderie and loyalty shared amongst the firefighters. It also allows for the other side of the hero to show: the one where not everyone is saved and how the firefighters deal with the haunting of lost victims.  

Where to watch:

10. Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY (2005)

This documentary was filmed 15 months after 9/11 and illuminates the fundamental changes that occurred after the terrorist attacks for the firefighters. 

After the attacks, the world gained an appreciation for firefighters, their bravery, and the importance of their work. However, the long-established hierarchy and seniority system changed within the companies.

Brotherhood looks at three teams: Squad 252 in Brooklyn, Rescue 1 in Manhattan, and Rescue 4 in Queens.

Here is the Trailer

Where to watch:

11. American Experience: Triangle Fire (2011)

The last documentary on the list is not about the firefighters themselves, but about one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents that changed the American private factory industry forever.

This docu-series episode chronicles the world’s deadliest workplace accident: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

On March 25, 1911, in Manhattan, a dropped match caused the death of 146 workers; 123 female and 23 male garment workers died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Because the doors were locked, many of the workers could not escape the burning building.

The fire department was unable to stop the flames, and their ladders were only able to reach the seventh floor. At this time, the Fire Department was simply not prepared for an incident like this. This tragic event inspired the fire service of New York City to press for stronger fire codes, fire drills, and use of technology like sprinklers

Only a couple of years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, firefighters began to evolve into the robust first responders of today.

Where to watch:

  • PBS (as a KQED Passport member for $5 donation)

Conclusion

These documentaries show a variety of different aspects of being a firefighter. You can see how much has changed in the fire service over the last hundred years and how the firefighters have had to adapt. I recommend you check some of these out.

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Chase

I have been a Firefighter in Northern California since 2012 and a Paramedic since 2008. My site is dedicated to helping answer questions people have about the Fire Service. I am passionate about helping to share what I have learned and assisting those who are pursuing a career as a firefighter. Thanks for coming to my site!

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