Volunteer firefighter has something extra on the side

URBANA — Lance Liggett was on his computer in November, trying to figure out when the next test for Chicago firefighters would be offered, when he stumbled upon a different kind of fire fighting — the kind that allows worried moms and dads to sleep at night.

"When I typed it (Chicago Fire Department) in, it brought up 'Chicago Fire extras.' I clicked on it and they were looking for real firefighters to play extras," said the Urbana native and volunteer firefighter.

Chicago Fire is an NBC drama about the tightly knit crew of a Chicago fire house. The Season 2 finale airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Never one to avoid adventure, the 24-year-old Liggett sent in pictures of himself and a description of his fire-fighting skills. And in December he found himself in the Windy City, where the show is recorded.

"They do everything in Chicago. A lot of the time, the firefighters in the background are real firefighters," said Liggett, who signed up for fun.

"I didn't know I'd get paid. I figured they have thousands of extras."

While Liggett is a firefighter in real life, he doesn't get paid for that. He's been a volunteer with the Carroll Fire Department in northeast Urbana since he was 17 and is currently the longest continuously serving member of the department.

"My overall goal is to be hired full time to do fire fighting and down the road open a business and be my own boss," he said.

He's so serious that he paid to put himself through the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute academy in the spring of 2013. Municipal fire departments often pay for their new hires to get that specialized training. Others, who have to be in a fire department, take the course to make themselves marketable as professionals.

Liggett has also taken classes at Parkland College and the Community College of the Air Force in criminal justice, fire sciences and construction.

It was January 2007 when he joined Carroll.

"I was getting ready to graduate from Urbana High School," he said. "My brother, J.D. Liggett, was a lieutenant when I joined. He was the first one in the family to join the fire service."

Also adventurous, J.D. Liggett, now 27, just graduated from F-16 fighter pilot school as a member of the Colorado Air National Guard.

Their father, Jim Liggett of Urbana, said Lance demonstrated at an early age that he wanted to go into public service.

"We got pictures of when he was real young, he had fire outfits on. When he got older, he got into Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol. He won an award in Civil Air Patrol," said Jim Liggett.

Jim Liggett wasn't totally surprised when his younger son told him and his wife about his television work.

"He's done other things that surprised us. It's in his nature to be active," he said, adding his son participated in several sports through high school and was even the homecoming king. "He's got a good heart for people and is always volunteering."

"I've always backed the kids and told them to go for everything and enjoy life. Try things. You just never know what you might like," added Shirley Liggett.

Liggett has taken his mother's advice to heart.

In addition to being a volunteer firefighter, he has a few part-time paying jobs.

For three years, he has been a member of the Illinois Air National Guard based in Peoria. That job requires frequent training and in April involved a three-day, 43-mile trek in the Appalachian Mountains with only a backpack.

An emergency medical technician with a basic certificate, Liggett works as an emergency medical services provider at State Farm Center. He is also a laborer with Laborer's Local 703, and an assistant swimming and diving coach at Urbana High School.

"I swam and dove all through high school," he said.

And he volunteers as Urbana High's track team pole vaulting coach.

When an opportunity to work in Chicago comes up, Liggett is usually able to juggle those other duties so he can appear as an extra.

"I've recorded with them six or seven times," he said, explaining that he tries to sign up for two-day shifts and stays with a firefighter friend who lives in a Chicago suburb.

"You work long days, pretty much morning to night. You get paid a little more depending on if you're a Chicago firefighter or you use your own equipment. I made around $300 for 10 hours and they feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner. They pay you overtime for anything over eight hours," he said, adding most of his stints have exceeded eight hours.

He reports to the same studio each time and the extras are taken by shuttle to wherever the scene is being shot.

For the April 29 episode — "A Dark Day," about a bomb that exploded at a hospital — Liggett said he was in Chicago for five days "for one scene."

"They may have to record from five to six different angles," he said.

The work is not difficult but can be time-consuming. Sometimes, the extras fill their down time by playing cards.

"I've met a lot of Chicago firefighters who are in the extra roles and firefighters from all over Illinois," he said.

While it can be hard to discern identities among the extras, Liggett has been spotted by friends and loved ones in at least a couple of episodes. One was early in the season, when he portrayed a recruit walking down a hall at the Chicago fire academy. And in the episode that aired April 8, he was the chauffeur who held open the car door for the fire chief.

"My fire department likes to call me 'Hollywood,' " he joked.

"It's definitely a new experience. I thought: Why not make a couple extra dollars and do something fun?" he said.

He'll continue the work until something better comes along — hopefully in the form of a full-time fire fighting job.

As for acting, "I don't want to make it a career," he said.

Fellow Carroll firefighter Lt. Allen Cameron said he's proud to see his colleague on the TV show. And he's also proud of Liggett's volunteer service as a firefighter.

"Like myself and a lot of other volunteers, he's doing it for the sheer love of the job," Cameron said. "Most of us don't even live in the district we protect. We're there for the love of the job and our dedication to protecting innocent people from misery."

Brian Brauer, spokesman for the UI Fire Service Institute and a volunteer firefighter for Edge-Scott, also applauded Liggett for the many hats he wears.

"He's someone very committed to becoming a career firefighter," Brauer said. "He's taking advantage of every opportunity and he's making his own opportunities to reach that goal."

Liggett said he has tested at eight or nine fire departments around Illinois so far — but not Chicago.

"It has not come across," he said of the next testing opportunity. "I'm still waiting for that to pop up."

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