Peter Keady: SmokeEaters
About the Project
Although I’d been making images of Palmer Municipal Fire Department for months, the idea for this exhibit began in April of 2017 in taking the color portrait of Tom “Pappy” Condosta. Pappy had just hurt his shoulder and was on the mend. I had my camera and, as usual, he and I were talking. It was a Monday meeting night. Station One’s floor-to-ceiling doors were open with beautiful light spilling in. I asked Pappy if I could take his photo. Being of a pleasant demeanor, he agreed. I tried different poses with tools, but the injury to his shoulder proved a hindrance. Taking his helmet off the rack, I asked him to hold it, with the goggles he would wear on calls. Upon editing the images at home, the idea of telling the story of volunteer firefighters through the lives of Station 27 was born. I didn’t want to show pictures of flames or emergency calls, those typical in news reporting. Instead, I chose portraits and behind the scenes images in an editorial approach.
Over the several years I’ve served as Chaplain with Palmer Fire, and subsequently with other fire and police departments, I’ve come to understand the general misperception the public has regarding First Responders, especially volunteer firefighters. Over 80% of fire departments are either all or partly volunteer. Men and women with jobs, families, stresses and strains just like everyone else. However, they’ve chosen to sacrifice personal and family time in serving their community. This service is taxing. First Responders see, smell, and hear things the average person never will. These critical incidents often linger for years, sometimes resulting in a loss of quality of life. We call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, the symptoms from Post Traumatic Stress stem from an actual psychological injury. For volunteers, and even career personnel, this isn’t what they signed up for, but it’s part of the job and they accept it as being worth the risk.
The term Smoke Eater harkens back to the day when firefighters did not have air packs, Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Firefighters breathed in acrid smoke in service to their community.
About the Photographer
I do not love photography, the mechanics and process, but I love what I can do with photography. For me, image-making has always been prioritizing communication over aesthetics. However, when the two collide, something special happens — learning photography from a sociological perspective rather than an artistic approach shaped how and what I choose to photograph. Telling other’s stories, especially people who are more private and hidden from the public eye, has always captivated my attention. My first, true story was a boy with severe asthma. The project took over a year-and-a-half to complete; initially displayed in the newspaper I worked for and then considered for publication in LIFE Magazine. Fast forward 30 years, SmokeEaters is the result of decades of image-making, personal journey, and a passion for revealing truth.
When I became part of Palmer Municipal Fire Department, as their Chaplain, I saw in the men and women a drive and intensity I’d seldom encountered. Sacrifice. Honor. Integrity. Passion. These are the words coming to mind when I think of firefighters. Willing to endure personal discomfort and risking physical and emotional injury while rescuing strangers, First Responders are a unique breed. With PMFD, my interest in caring for First Responders and my passion for visual story telling collided.
This exhibit is dedicated to all firefighters risking their lives in service to their communities but specifically to, Tom “Pappy” Condosta, who answered the Final Call on Christmas Eve, 2018. When I began serving as Chaplain of Station 27, he was the oldest, active member. Although no longer riding on calls, he still showed up to the station, filling out run sheets and taking attendance. He set a standard of dedication for the next generations to strive towards. He is greatly missed.
All sales of the book, SmokeEaters, go directly to, “The Chaplain’s Scholarship” at Palmer Municipal Fire Department. The scholarship will be given to the selected applicant expressing an interest in fire serve or a career in emergency management to further schooling or education. To purchase a copy of SmokeEaters, please visit the photographer’s website: www.PK3photography.com and follow the links.
Often, firefighters will spend more time at the station than at home, placing unique stress on the family. Children giggle while playing on rolled, five-inch supply lines.
After a Call
Firefighter Keith Soltis, laces up personal boots after a call. All gear is kept in personal racks or kept close by in case of a call. Volunteers are on call 24/7 often forsaking personal time and family in responding to calls.
Engineer/Firefighter Troy Osmun, enjoying a cigar in the engine bay of Station 2. Don’t mess with his Engine!
Tom “Pappy” Condosta. 40 years in fire service. This photo inspired the entire SmokeEaters photography project.
Deputy Chief Jim Alercia, with photo of his father, Thomas Alercia, taken at a fatal fire in Wilson Boro, Pa., July 18, 1983. When Thomas Alercia arrived on scene, in order to rescue trapped children, he entered the house without the aid of his SCBA. The elder Alercia passed away from leukemia in 2011.
Deputy Chief Jim Alercia, during his functional fitness workout, improving his performance on the fire grounds.