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A new organization hopes to protect the legacy and well-being of Tucson's firefighters

Three silhouetted firefighters stand in front of a red-orange blaze, unified in an effort to tame the inferno. Two firefighters, one on each side, hold hoses aimed into the fire, creating a starburst effect. The tallest of the three stands in the middle, with hands on the shoulders of the other two.

My words don't do the scene justice—the intense flame, darkened bodies wearing oxygen masks, danger a few feet away. It's a powerful image taken by local photographer Sean Stuchen. The photo captures the essence of firefighters in action—committed, unified and brave.

Stuchen visited the Public Safety Academy training facility and Tucson Fire Department stations to get his shots. His work is now on display at ART Gallery, 1122 N. Stone Ave. A reception takes place from 1 to 6 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 12.

Steve and Maxine Murray donated their gallery space to display Stuchen's work. The gallery's red walls are a vibrant background for Stuchen's 78 pieces. His photos are grouped by theme—including recruits in training; fire trucks; the hose, gauges and equipment; firefighters in action; and people shots. Stuchen captures both the strength and compassion of the firefighters. Their faces share similar expressions—a mixture of determination, intensity and might.

Stuchen says he started seriously taking photos less than three years ago. His natural ability shines. A ladder, a helmet, a fire pole—objects that wouldn't get a second glance—appear with a sense of character.

When I ask what he learned from the experience, he speaks words that match the essence of his photos: "This reinforced my understanding of the commitment of the department staff. This is their life. It's not a job. Many days, their life is on the line. ... They have huge hearts and are great people. They are heroes in our community who many take for granted."

Stuchen's exhibition is the inaugural event of the Tucson Fire Foundation (tucsonfirefoundation.org). Chairman Mike McKendrick is a 30-year fire veteran and is an assistant fire chief with the TFD. Vice chair Dave Ridings, also an assistant fire chief, has 33 years of service. Both men speak about the importance of creating a legacy for future generations.

"The fire service has a rich history and culture," says McKendrick. "The present culture and pride in the fire service has to be maintained ... and passed through generations." He lists words and phrases such as value, integrity, professionalism, teamwork and striving for excellence as cornerstones of the culture.

Ridings mentions that part of the legacy can be preserved through acquiring equipment, fire-related objects and memorabilia. He says a goal is to restore old fire trucks so they may be put on display in the community.

Historical and cultural preservation is only part of the foundation's mission. With budget cuts affecting city services, the foundation, according to a news release, "provides funds to bridge the human-services gap between the needs of the fire-service community and the limits of available funding."

Ridings says they wish to fill in the gap where benefits and pensions fall short. This includes areas of human services, education and guidance. He adds that they are reaching out to other fire districts to create a regional organization.

"The needs now are improved wellness (services) for firefighters, to (address) mental and physical health," says McKendrick. "Every year, 35,000 firefighters are injured in the country, and over 100 die in the line of duty.

"Firefighters put their lives on the line every day. It's not just running into burning buildings. ... It's the day-to-day operations. There are infectious diseases and hazardous materials. ... The fire department is there as a standing army, always there to answer the call," he says.

McKendrick asserts the foundation is here for the long haul. A strong focus is on development—to build an endowment to support future generations.

This view is shared by volunteer Patty Vallance. Vallance brought TFD personnel and community philanthropists together to build the foundation. She also assisted in the exhibition display, adding "quips" next to various photos, including "faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Service in the face of the unknown—darkened staircases, smoky hallways, hazardous conditions—is the job of a firefighter. What is known is the commitment, strength and true grit it takes to do the job—a rare combination of qualities and behavior worthy of great appreciation.

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