“Romantic visions of courage and heroism are the stuff from which novels are constructed, but the reality of courage and heroism to a firefighter is hard, dirty work.” – Dennis Smith, Report from Engine Co. 82
Dennis Smith’s Report from Engine Co. 82 was published in 1972 but is just as applicable and impactful now as is it was then. Things like tactics and personal protective equipment have changed, evolved, but others haven’t. The emotional toll, the physical requirements, the sometimes less-than-stellar working conditions, these remain, decade to decade, department to department. The job is just as rewarding, and exhausting, now as it was in the late 1960’s.
Smith, a retired FDNY firefighter, and an accomplished author makes numerous observations throughout his journal-like book on the culture of the fire service. He writes on brotherhood, stress, the area in which he served; he enshrines the kitchen table as a central meeting place, drill field, psychologist office, and family dinner hub. He shares stories of the numerous fires, rescues, and false calls he ran while working at the then-busiest engine in the FDNY. Smith does all this with an open, eloquent writing style that presents our profession in a positive, but not candy-coated, light.
If you were fortunate enough to join the fire service before 2007 (the year the iPhone was released) then you know what it was like before the proliferation of personal technology an social media. You remember time spent playing cards, sharing meals, watching movies (together) on a slow night. You remember near-constant conversation amongst the crew at the firehouse, discussing calls, theoretical situations, solving each other’s problems, etc. While these things are still present, they are diminished, lessened by the draw of that blue light, that 5.5” screen, that endless scrolling. The firehouse Smith writes about, the family that resided in it, seems less common these days. In fact, you may find yourself jealous as you read this book of a time long gone. You may find yourself wishing you had that level of love and camaraderie in your station, you may even find yourself putting your phone away and encouraging your fellow firefighters to do the same.
Different, but the Same
Another striking part of Report from Engine Co. 82 is Smith’s discussion of some of his feelings and emotions that sound a lot like post-traumatic stress symptoms in a time before the prevalence of PTSD 1. Engine Co. 82 runs out of the Bronx, a rough area at the time of Smith’s writing. During the “War Years,” the Bronx was plagued with poverty, crime, arson, drugs, and violence. Smith writes candidly of his emotional reactions to working in these conditions, his anger and frustration are palpable at many points throughout the book. Reading this account, one will realize that all of the things that give Smith pause and take an emotional toll on him are all things the fire service still deals with just as much or more in some cases. Things like overdoses, poverty-stricken families, deplorable living conditions, the pain of watching someone lose literally all they have. These are things we all see to one degree or another, day in and day out. We may not run the 20-30 calls per day Smith was responding to then, but we still have sleepless nights and days where it feels like you can’t get a breath in between calls. Everything has changed, but all is still the same.
Smith writes of catching himself at times, realizing the stress is getting to him, and taking steps to acknowledge it and refocus his mind, to reframe the situation.
“I can feel anger building within me, and I don’t like the feeling… I’m annoyed with myself… Stop complaining. You get paid to serve the people. When the alarm comes in, you go out.”
Whether this is him recounting what went through his head at the time or if it’s a result of the self-reflection required to write a book like this, he doesn’t specify. Either way, it’s an impressive and effective way to deal with these stressors. If you’re prone to journaling then you already know this. Smith was stoic, recognizing the bad but not focusing on it, choosing instead to focus on performing his job to the best of his abilities, treating his citizens like people instead of society’s trash. This is an ability all firefighters and emergency workers must hone as a means to better serve the public and to save themselves.
A Positive Force
It’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves in this sort of burnt-out state of mind, but you must train yourself to recognize it and reframe it as Smith has written about. Focusing on the negative, letting it change you, is detrimental and goes against everything a firefighter needs to be: a positive force in the lives of the public, their fellow firefighters, and their family. Smith realizes all of this, at least subconsciously, and shares it within the pages of this book.
“Danny has a look of disgust on his face. He understands the misery- the guy on the floor, his nodding friends, his helpless wife, -caused by drugs, but he has seen so much he is convinced that nothing can be done about it.”
Don’t be a Danny, remember, a little empathy can go a long way2.
Report from Engine Co. 82 is a fantastic read and one all firefighters should read at least once during their career. This book is entertaining, enlightening, and easy to identify with for anyone on the job, regardless of the decade in which it was written. And, as always, as you read, reflect and relate.