Fire photographer serves from behind the lens
Steve Roth’s photographs help crews study past blazes to better fight new ones
Firefighters respond to a three-alarm fire at a biodiesel plant on Dec. 11. (Courtesy of 911 Photography )
Steve Roth does not leave home without a camera. He never knows when the next fire alarm will sound. While the former volunteer fireman no longer fights fires, the 47-year-old Oxford Township resident is still a valuable asset to Adams County’s emergency services community. As a photographer, that is. Roth owns and operates 911 Photography with his wife, Lori Roth. The two started the business nearly five years ago as a way for Steve to combine his two loves: firefighting and photography. Roth, who works full time as an engineering consultant for PennDOT, was a member of what is now United Hook & Ladder Co. 33 for 20 years. After injuries kept him from volunteering, his photography business got him back on the fireground in a unique capacity that helps fire departments in myriad ways.
Steve Roth shoots at a fire after his 2011 shoulder surgery. (Courtesy of 911 Photography )
Roth’s pictures provide documentation for fire investigations. They are also used by departments to study practices and procedures for training purposes. “It’s another set of eyes on the fireground that sees things that people don’t see,” Roth said. “It’s a tool for firefighters to go back and critique themselves so they can go home to their families.” Additionally, Roth’s company photographs various ceremonies and funerals and will often take portraits of volunteers and officers for departments to have on file. He commonly distributes action shots to local media outlets, including The Evening Sun.Roth has photographed scenes of fatal wrecks, distributing photographs to the Adams County coroner for no charge. Some of his photographs have even been used in court cases. But even with 3,000-plus likes on the company’s Facebook page and millions of website hits, the Roths do not make much of a profit. They bring in enough to maintain the site, 911-photography.com, and give back whatever else they make.
A firefighter falls through a roof at a residence in the
Lake Meade area on Apr. 6, 2012. (Courtesy of 911 Photography )
The Roths contributed $850 from 911 Photography’s calendar sales to the Adams County Volunteer Emergency Services Association.
They see it as providing a service versus running a business.
The purchases are primarily firemen buying pictures of themselves doing what they love.
“I’ve never sold a picture of a car accident or a burning house,” Roth said. “I make very little money.”
Roth gets fire call notifications on his iPhone through a scanner app. He contacts one of his 10 photographers via text message to find out if someone likely to be in a certain area can make it to the scene. He referred to the system as a tag-team operation.
A firefighter holds a rescued pet at the scene of a fire on Jun. 13, 2010 in Abbottstown. ( Courtesy of 911 Photography )
911 Photography has 10 photographers in six Pennsylvania counties and Maryland, all of whom have experience serving in the emergency services field.
“I try to capture an emergency scene and the people who are working it,” said Bryan Felix, a photographer for Roth and a technician for Frederick County Engine Co. 2 in Maryland. “It gives them something to learn from and it gives me something to learn from.”
Felix, also a member of United Hook & Ladder, said he sees 911 Photography as an extension of the media. But while taking pictures on a scene, he is a fireman first.
“If I see a hose with a kink in it, I’m going to make sure that gets taken care of before I go about shooting pictures,” Felix said.
Over the years, Roth has developed strong bonds within the local emergency-services community. He has all access cards issued by United Hook & Ladder, Penn Township Volunteer Emergency Services and the Adams County Volunteer Emergency Services Association.
“It’s a great asset to us,” said Joey Byrne, United Hook & Ladder president. “They’re there to help us. They’re documenting things so we can use it for future calls and analysis.”
Byrne said 911 Photography members will often assist with traffic control. Sometimes, Byrne said, they arrive on scene before the fire department.
Jerry Poland, chief of the Bonneauville Community Fire Co., said while on scene, getting photographs is not a luxury department personnel have.
Santa brings the tanker to a three-alarm fire at a biodiesel company in New Chester on Dec. 11, 2010. ( Courtesy of 911 Photography )
“Steve has a fire-service background,” Poland said. “He understands what needs to be photographed and helps us know what we’re up against when we get there. He works quietly in the background, but he provides the fire service with a lot of valuable photographs.”
Chris Eiker, a career firefighter in Washington, D.C., occasionally shoots for 911 photography in the Gettysburg area.
A past chief of the Gettysburg Fire Department who has been in the fire service for 26 years, Eiker said it is important to capture what guys are doing and to get that out to the public.
He said as a photographer, he is able to see a lot of things at an active fire scene that he never noticed while fighting fires, such as different hose-line placements, apparatus positions and fireground tactics.
Eiker said that with municipalities in Adams County considering the enactment of a fire tax to help fund volunteer fire departments, now is a good time for people to know more about what firefighters do.
“It’s so important to show the general public how much effort is put in and the dangers they place themselves in,” Eiker said.
Lori Roth, who works on the technical end of the photography business, said the relationships she and her husband have created over the years are special. The website hits continually amaze her.
“It’s so interesting to see how many people know us,” Lori said. “We go out and it’s 911 Photography and they know us. And the fact that everybody is looking at it; it makes you feel good that you’re doing something for the community.”
But amid the appreciation and praise, there is a certain level of disdain for what the Roths do. Steve said he routinely gets hate mail from people asking why he publishes these types of pictures.
When he gets such mail, Roth said, he writes back and explains his line of work, detailing the training benefits the photographs offer.
“I’ve lost in my life, too, so I know what it’s like,” Roth said. “People are sensitive when it involves them. Like anybody, it’s very interesting until it involves you. It’s a harsh, harsh reality.”
Lori said 911 Photography shows the community something people might never realize. She said people need to learn about it, and that is what 911 Photography facilitates.
“He’s not out there taking pictures of somebody’s misfortune,” she said. “He’s doing it for training. He’s helping firemen out to say, “Look what we did. We need to change something.’ The public needs to see that this is good.
“It’s a benefit for people to see what local firefighters and EMS do. To show people this is what these ladies and gentlemen are doing for you. You may never get in a car wreck, your house may never burn down, but these guys are out there helping.” Steve Roth said 911 Photography documents history. But as the man behind the lens, he carries with him a certain level of pride and compassion for his hobby.”I love the fire service and this is my way of giving back,” he said. “If it helps keep one fireman from being killed, then I’ve done what my job is to do.”