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Monroe firefighter plays extra on 'Chicago Fire'
MONROE - Alan Rufer is happy in his role as the Training Division Chief for the Monroe Fire Department. But last week he answered a different call - a casting call for "Chicago Fire," a new series on NBC about the firefighters, rescue squad and paramedics of Chicago Firehouse 51.

"I would do it again," Rufer said, "but not tomorrow."

Rufer said his long, one-day experience as an extra on the set was exhilarating, educational and exhausting. He played several different roles in a banquet scene - standing around in his blue-gray suit, making pleasant conversation, dancing, looking casual with a drink in his hand, and sitting at a dinner table.

"At one point, I sat within 10 feet of Gabriela Dawson and Leslie Shay (played by Monica Raymund and Lauren German, two of the show's stars)," he said.

The episode, Better to Lie, is scheduled to air Wednesday, Feb. 27 on NBC.

Rufer said he probably wouldn't have thought about doing the show if it had not been related to fire service.

He found several firefighters he'd met previously at fire school or conferences and "a ton of other firemen, too.

"We spent a lot of time sitting around telling 'war' stories," he said. "And there was food all day long; they just kept bringing it in."

About 200 to 250 firefighters were chosen for the scene. They came from every type of department, from small volunteer departments to large metropolitan departments, and represented the ranks from firefighter to chief officer, Rufer said.

"What made the experience so great was not the fact that you might be on television; it was who you may be on television with and what you were representing ... your brothers and sisters in the fire service," he added. "Everyone treated each other like we have been friends our entire lives. We know and understand the challenges each of us faces and the difficulties of the job."

Rufer said he had "no idea" what went into producing a show like "Chicago Fire," with changing sets and buildings, long hours and low pay. His day started at 6:30 a.m. at a hotel on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. At 8:30 p.m. the extras were allowed to leave, but three more hours of shooting remained. Rufer decided to leave for his three-hour drive home.

"It's amazing. When they were done with that day's shooting and editing, about four minutes of it will be in the show. I have no idea if I will be seen, make it through the editing," he said.

Rufer said firemen are critical of the show, believing it gives the public a misconception of them and of their work and training.

"But I tell people, remember, it's entertainment, not a documentary," he said. "If they did it the way we did, it would be very, very expensive .... and boring," he said.

"Chicago Fire" does a good job "finding the middle ground" between portraying reality and keeping its Hollywood ratings, he said. Retired fire service members advise the show, and the Chicago Fire Academy has taught staff some of the realities of the profession.

"Those who have watched the show from the beginning would have seen significant changes in how the actual firefighting has been portrayed," Rufer said.

What isn't purely for entertainment in the show, Rufer finds a way to make it a teaching tool.

"It gives me, as a training chief, a platform to discuss a variety of emergency and non-emergency decisions we face, such as emergency scene operations or personnel issues," he said. "We can take an example from the show and ask: How would you do this differently and why? This allows us to grow as individuals and as a department without the stress or time constraints of the situation being real."