Dennis Hunter didn't start out wanting to be a firefighter.
Once a barbershop owner, the Farmington Hills resident decided to try out for a position 14 years ago, after a cousin told him the Detroit Fire Department was hiring. He took a written test, a physical test, then trained for four months.
"As I'm learning about this, and the more I saw what they actually do, the more I said, 'I gotta get this job'," he said.
Now devoted to his career, Hunter is among the Detroit firefighters featured in Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit. Produced and directed by Tom Putnam and Jenna Sanchez, the film opens today at AMC Livonia 20 and AMC Forum in Sterling Heights.
Executive producers are actor Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, who were both involved in the FX cable network series Rescue Me, which also centered around the lives of firefighters.
Hunter attended the New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and saw the Detroit premiere at the Fillmore. He said the film accurately portrays the world Detroit firefighters face, at least as far as it goes. Some of the work firefighters do, like rescuing people from vehicle wrecks, didn't make it to the screen.
"I thought it was good," he said. "They shot 1,000 hours of footage, and for what they showed, it was very accurate."
The movie follows Engine Company 50, but firefighters from several other companies, including Hunter's, are also featured. Primary figures are Brendan (Doogie) Milewski, 33, a firefighter disabled after a brick wall fell on him, and Detroit's new fire commissioner Donald Austin, who has been on the job less than a year after a 30-year career in Los Angeles.
'There's nothing like saving a life'
Burn includes dramatic footage from structure fires and was shot, in part, with helmet cameras that show exactly what firefighters face as they walk into a burning building. Hunter said the movie gave his wife and three daughters, ages 19, 14 and 11, a new perspective about his work, which has him responding to as many as nine fires in a 24-hour shift.
As the film notes, Detroit has one of the highest arson rates in the country. But Hunter also remembers growing up in what was a very different city.
"I had a good childhood," he said. "Detroit wasn't all burnt up. It was nicer. Now, going into some of those neighborhoods, you remember how it used to be, and it's sad."
Despite seeing what is arguably the worst of the city, dealing with departmental politics and the challenges of working with old equipment in dilapidated quarters, Hunter said he still loves his job.
"There's nothing like saving a life," he said. "It makes everything worth it. And it's also gratifying to save people's property."
To learn more about Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, visit detroitfirefilm.org.