Authors: Dennis Smith
“A real fireman and a writer of great and graphic talent, who explains to you and me firefighting as it is—the excitement,
the horror, the tedium, the mysteries. A fine achievement.”
—William F. Buckley, Jr.,
New York Magazine
“A blockbuster of a book. Read it.”
“For the first time, a fireman tells it like it is.”
“A moving profile of the people who keep America’s big cities from falling apart or burning down.”
—John Callaway, CBS Radio
“Straightforward, graphic… unsentimental, funny.”
The New Yorker
“A crackling book that captures the firefighters' camaraderie, heroism, and extraordinarily tough life.”
“A terrifying, absorbing book.”
“Has the urgency of a five-alarm fire.”
Washington Post Book World
A Song for Mary: An Irish-American Memory
Glitter and Ash
Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America
The Aran Islands: A Personal Journey
The Little Fire Engine that Saved the City (for children)
Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words
Warner Books Edition
Copyright © 1972 by Dennis Smith
Introduction copyright © 1999 by Dennis Smith
All rights reserved.
This Warner Books edition is published by arrangement with the author.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
To the memory of all those firefighters in the
United States who have given their lives to protect us—
more than 3,500 since the day I took the oath of office.
This book seems to be about a particular group of firefighters working in the South Bronx, but the incidents described here
tell the story of all firefighters working in this country. The problems in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles
are the same, only the names change.
A book can develop a life of its own, and this is certainly true of
Report from Engine Co. 82.
When, almost thirty years ago now, I began keeping notes on my everyday experiences as a firefighter in the South Bronx,
there was no way of knowing that I was creating a book that would be translated into a dozen languages, go through five editions
and sell over two million copies.
Because of a letter I’d published in the
New York Times Book Review
about the poet William Butler Yeats, a savvy editor of
magazine asked me to write an article about the life of a modern-day firefighter. While most beginning authors dream about
ways to meet editors and literary agents, perhaps at school seminars, lectures, or weekly writing groups, here I was, never
having met a person in the publishing industry, being invited to write a story for an important national magazine. What luck!
It wasn’t the only great good fortune I’ve had in my life.
The events recounted in
Report from Engine Co. 82
were something like a wartime experience, each day offering a new set of challenges. I remember thinking that the heroic
men with whom I worked deserved a better chronicler than I—Tolstoy, perhaps, or Crane, or Remarque. I was just a neophyte,
and the challenge of writing about great men was almost as frightening as that first time I pushed a hose line into a burning
building. Yet, I knew I could do no more than my untested best.
Above all, finding the time to write required me to be innovative in scavenging time from my already busy days. While logging
forty hours a week as a back-step firefighter, serving as father to three, working a side job as a limo driver to help pay
the bills, and plugging away on a master’s degree at New York University, I somehow found furtive moments to record what I
saw each day amid the turbulence of the South Bronx.
Engine Company 82, where I worked from 1966 to 1973, was then the busiest fire company in the most desperate neighborhood
of the country’s largest city, a place where the American records were held for crime, poverty, illness, and deprivation of
all kinds. The South Bronx also held the record for fires. Engine Company 82 responded to about nine thousand alarms each
year, about a third of them for emergencies like shootings, knifings, car accidents, suicides, drug overdoses, and any one
of a hundred terrible things that can happen to a person who has no money, no education, no job, and no future.
The next third were false alarms, a strange but predictable by-product of the lawlessness and ignorance that inhabits impoverished
neighborhoods. The random and seemingly innocuous pulling of a false alarm can and often does end up being an act of malicious
criminal manslaughter, for when the fire trucks are responding to a false alarm at one end of the district, they’re unable
to save lives at the other.
The final third were the alarms for fire. In our district alone, an average day brought about ten or twelve fires, almost
all of them deliberately set. Two or three each day grew into second, third, or fourth alarm fires that entailed heavy risk
for the firefighters trying to contain them. The South Bronx was a dangerous place, and even today I’m not sure whether it
was more dangerous for the firefighter or the average citizen.
Katherine Anne Porter once suggested that sometimes a book will find its author, rather than the other way around, and I think
that’s true of this book. The story of the extraordinary and selfless work of firefighters needed to be told; by happenstance,
I wanted to be a writer, I wore a helmet already dark with the soot of a hundred fires, and I worked in the busiest fire company
in the history of the New York Fire Department—and perhaps the world. So a book that needed to be written found me.
Not long after my letter appeared in the
Times, The New Yorker
published an article about me titled “Fireman Smith” in which 1 discussed literature in general and William Butler Yeats
specifically. This article in turn prompted an editor at McCall Books to query whether I’d ever considered writing a book
about being a firefighter. I responded like, well, a fireman responding to an alarm. I knew that before me was a story few
people knew, and I felt challenged by the act of writing the way mountain climbers are confronted by mountains.
I loved writing about the never-ending excitement, the bravado of the firefighters, and the countless stories of human adversity
and trial. Some days I found myself sitting on the edge of my chair as excited by the writing as by a fourth alarm fire. When
the last sentence was typed, I felt my modest goal had been accomplished: to honestly depict the everyday trials of an urban
The 1960s was a tempestuous period for America, a time that might be remembered as the age of riots. The “Burn-baby-burn”
syndrome, coupled with a growing distrust of any authority figure—be it government, police officers, or firefighters—led to
a historically high rate of fire. And in the deprived, impoverished world of the South Bronx, people believed it was better
to burn the neighborhood called ghetto than to continue to acquiesce in its everyday life.
Three decades later, I returned to the streets of the South Bronx, accompanying the fire chief as he worked the night shift.
As I studied the look, the smell, and the feel of the streets, I realized so many things had not changed: families living
in unkempt, inadequate housing, filthy alleys and backyards, the polluted air that comes with overcrowding. The firefighters,
though, are responding to far fewer fires than before, mostly due to a heightened intolerance of crime and the dissipation
of the radical political mentality of the Vietnam era. Engine Co. 82 now responds to about 3,800 alarms a year, down from
9,000 when this book was written. Yet, the firefighters still crawl through garbage- and debris-smutted hallways, still respond
to false alarms at three, four and five o’clock in the morning, still confront abandoned buildings torched by mercenary landlords,
and still hear the frantic screams of mothers whose children might be left behind in burning buildings.
It’s impossible to see impoverished families living in these neighborhoods and not ask why things haven’t changed in the last
thirty years. It’s not enough to shrug and say, “The poor have always been and always will be,” or, as my mother used to say,
“God loves the poor, and that’s why He made so many of them.” How many years are needed before a national consensus demands
that residents of our country live in decent, safe, and well-kept housing? Particularly among the upper classes, there seems
to be more concern for ideas written about art than about Americans who are poor, and anyone riding through these needful
neighborhoods can see that a truly decent, civilized society would be better judged, not by its art, but by how it cares for
The poverty of the ’90s is not much different from the poverty of the South Bronx in the ’60s, or even from the poverty I
knew coming of age on the east side of New York in the '50s. The absence of money is still less important than the absence
of good food, good housing, and the belief in a positive future. The young, cocky malcontents I see on the streets of the
South Bronx today are no better educated and no better prepared for employment than they were when I watched them from the
back of a fire truck. Most important, those young people don’t think they’re a part of America’s future, but separate, isolated,
and uncared for. This is the crux of our society’s shame, and the tragedy of our present.
Social conditions directly affect the firefighter’s work. The Bronx today continues to be one of the highest fire-hit areas
of the world. In every city, the amount of fires and false alarms is always highest in poorer neighborhoods.
The firefighters you will meet in this book are no different from the firefighters who are closest to your home. I know firefighters
in almost every state from Maine to California, and I also know that men and women who fight fires experience similar hazards
and gratifications wherever they’re located. A firefighter in a company that responds to a hundred calls a year can find himself
in the same kind of collapsed building as one working in a company that responds to five thousand alarms each year. And he’ll
take the same pride in his work when he carries someone from a burning building or cuts someone out of a wrecked car.
Firefighters respond with alarming regularity in the United States. Our fire load is a problem that plagued America when I
wrote this book, and continues to plague us much more than other industrialized countries. In the last year there were nearly
two million fires in America and over four thousand fire-related deaths, resulting in almost $9 billion in financial loss.
Ninety-six firefighters died in the line of duty. I continue to be hopeful that
Report from Engine Co. 82
will make more people conscious of the hazards of fire, for awareness is the only way to reduce such startling numbers.
This book changed my life, and since its publication I have gone on to write nine other books; create a national magazine
start several fire-fighting-related businesses; and institute the Foundation for the Health and Safety of American Firefighters.
I couldn’t have done any of these things without
Report from Engine Co. 82,
because it gave me a credible platform for addressing the important issues that affect firefighters everywhere. Representing
such courageous, committed people has been, and continues to be, a great privilege.
Firefighters may be the most ubiquitous civil servants we have. Think of any natural or man-made disaster you might have seen
on television or read about in newspapers. A building is bombed; a hundred buildings collapse in an earthquake; a flood cascades
through a town, flattening everything before it; a fire speeds from town to town, devouring houses the way locusts devour
leaves; a plane crashes on a coastline; a lone madman walks into a restaurant and wantonly sprays bullets. In each tragic
situation, hundreds may be wounded or mercilessly killed, and in every photo you see, in every paragraph you read, there will
be firefighters. Paid or volunteer, often at great personal risk, they are there, giving of themselves for others.