Alarming Truth: student docudrama seeks to prevent off-campus fire deaths

Alarming Truth: student docudrama seeks to prevent off-campus fire deaths

Craig Terry

An alarming truth is that since 2000 more than 160 people have died across the U.S. in university-related fires, most of them off-campus.

Another alarming truth is that prior to many of these fires, students disconnected smoke alarms because their beeping, often triggered by cigarette smoke during a party, was an annoyance.

In the Alarming Truth, a movie written by, produced by, directed by and starring Rowan University students, viewers will see what can happen when carelessness with a lit cigarette and disregard for safety – a disarmed smoke alarm – result in a loss of life.

The film, the final two scenes of which were shot March 21 at Penn Medicine, 1800 Lombard Street in Philadelphia, is being produced in conjunction with the Clery Center for Security on Campus in Wayne, Pa., in partnership with Campus Firewatch of Belchertown, Ma., and the Michael H. Minger Foundation of Niceville, Fla. It was funded with a $15,000 Department of Homeland Security grant.

“The story is fictional but its basis is real,” said director Tom Frenchu, 23, a senior Radio, Television & Film (RTF) major from Montgomery Township. “At off-campus parties people do disconnect smoke alarms.”

According to Campus Firewatch, which tracks campus fire fatalities in the U.S., three students have died in off-campus infernos during the 2013-14 academic year. The most recent, Matthew Heisler, a student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, died following an early morning fire March 16.

Seniors Lauren Stroz, Matt Wood, Colin Rooney, Eric Cheavers and Frenchu wrote the screenplay for Alarming Truth and held various jobs in its production.

Frenchu, other students and faculty associated with the film, believe its graphic storyline will make an impact.

“We’re addressing a national safety issue,” said Ned Eckhardt, a professor in the Department of Radio, Television & Film within the College of Communication & Creative Arts. “By having students write and produce the film, we’re getting the message right.”

Eckhardt guided the film’s production along with Associate Professor Diana Nicolae and professional director of photography Tony Stewart.


Dramatizing a tragedy

Told out of sequence, the Alarming Truth depicts the story of Zack (Terrill Braswall) and his roommate James (Andrew Schobert), Philadelphia students who hold a small party in their off-campus apartment.

In one scene James is seen smoking a cigarette, using a red plastic cup as an ashtray, but the cup becomes mixed in with trash and causes a fire.

James, Claire (Deidra Govan) and Grace (Kelly Flynn) escape the fire but Zack is caught inside, suffers smoke inhalation and burns, and is rushed to “Philadelphia Hospital” where he succumbs to his wounds.

The film features an appearance by Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and on-scene reporting by Karen Thomas, a 1990 Rowan alumna and longtime Philadelphia broadcaster who, as Gloria, interviews James outside the hospital after Zack is brought in.

Students used the Simulation Center at Penn Medicine, a fourth floor training center, to shoot a scene in which Zack’s parents learn he has died. They shot the final scene with Gloria interviewing James outside the lobby downstairs.

Students shot that scene among the uncontrollable sounds of the city – horns honking, dogs barking, a helicopter buzzing in the background – but as night washed in Frenchu called “cut” for the last time.

Stroz, 21, a senior RTF major from Middletown who produced the film, said production was challenging because shooting involved a dozen Rowan students (cast and crew) and a remote location.

“This is an important story to tell,” she said. “People don’t ever think a (fatal) fire will happen to them but it does happen. And one reason it happens is people don’t want to deal with smoke alarms.”

Cheavers, 23, a senior RTF major from Howell, was a camera operator for the shoot who also created a dynamic web site, Behind the Flames, to help promote the film.

In addition, his parents, Eric Sr. and Rose, portrayed Zack’s parents as they heard the tragic news.

“I built the web site for my New Media concentration but building it in conjunction with this project was a way to show what we’ve done, to document everything along the way,” Cheavers said.

The film, which will be about ten minutes long once it’s edited and released, is now in post production and will be available to students nationwide and promoted across the U.S. by the Clery Center this summer.