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Customer Review

on April 4, 2002
Dennis Smith's Report From Engine Company 82 was a huge best seller when it first appeared in 1972 and it immediately put its author into the rarified air of commercially successful authors. No small feat considering that 1 of every 3 books published fails to make any money at all and fewer than 1% sell more than a million copies, the way this book did.
Smith captured forever the day to day grind of inner city firefighters, before air masks were used regularly. He brings the reader into the last days of pre-modern, urban firefighting, the suffocating heat, the blinding smoke, the gut wrenching fear and most of all the camaraderie that comes along with a job that requires disciplined teamwork and exacting attention to detail.
Report opens up with a fire, of course, where Engine 82 and Ladder 31 are forced to breach or break through a wall to get a teenager out of a rear bedroom of a burning apartment. The first two firefighters from Engine 82 enter without air masks and take a terrible beating before they're relieved on the line by two members who are "tanked up." Smith takes the reader through the entire event, step by agonizing step.
Smith lets us see the teeming ghetto that existed around his Intervale Avenue firehouse at the time - today, that same area is covered with single family Nehemia Homes. He takes the reader through the emergencies (gas and water leaks), car accidents, false alarms and spectacular fires, from a firefighter's perspective. In it, he chronicles the death of a fireman, from Engine 82, who fell off the back of the rig, or backstep, while responding to a false alarm. In those days, firefighters still "rode outside" the rig, hanging off the back of the Engine or Pumper by holding onto straps that hung off a rear metal bar across the "backstep" or rear of the rig.
Dennis Smith worked in the early part of a quarter century period (from the late sixties to the late eighties) that saw 30% of all the buildings in NYC burned. Entire tracts of the South Bronx and huge swaths of Brooklyn were reduced to prairie like fields. Thousands of other buildings were made vacant.
I work in the same area today...about a mile and a half west of Engine 82 & Ladder 31. When I first arrived there in 1986 there were tons of vacant buildings, left over remnants from the firestorm of the previous decade. I've known lots of firefighters who went through that period. Most of them have been put out of the job with various forms of cancer, emphysema, throat disorders etc. The effects of swallowing all that smoke are well documented thanks to their sacrifices. Most of NYC's inner city firefighters from that period are dead now.
Of course, air masks are mandatory now (thank God!) and bunker gear has been mandated as of 1994. Despite all that, New York has lost over twenty firefighters in the line of duty over the past five years alone, 764 in its history - pre-9/11.
The book is divided into numerous vignettes which cover the range of incidents Engine 82 responded to, the squalor of the South Bronx, the good natured ribbing of firehouse life, while contrasting the job and that area, to his home and family life in Westchester County, about 30 miles north of New York City.
If there is any nit to be picked with this book, it's that the other firefighters are not very well developed characters. This may have been due to Smith's reluctance to expose the real people he'd worked with. Still, it's a quick and compelling read. Smith has an engaging story telling style and a good-hearted humility and strong sense of humanity that shines through the book. A must for fire buffs everywhere and an interesting behind-the-scenes story about our very recent history for others.
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