The Founding Of Firehouse®

Founding Editor Dennis Smith recalls the idea that launched Firehouse® Magazine and takes readers through the publication’s earliest days.


It’s hard to believe. Twenty-five summers with the length of 25 winters have passed since that spring day back in 1975 when I first came to the idea of creating a magazine especially for firefighters. Or, I should say, when the idea came to me, for it literally plopped into my lap. I was at...


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As everyone knows, to own 100% of a good idea is to own 100% of nothing – at least until you do something about it. And, there is always a governing rule to be aware of, which is: nothing comes easy. For me, the combination of luck with being in the right place at the right time made all the difference. I knew that the nation’s firefighters would support me in my efforts, because Report from Engine Co. 82 had sold two million copies in English, and thousands of firefighters had written such wonderful letters to me. They would let me put my foot in the publishing door, but after that I would be on my own, and I would have to deliver an exciting, readable and consequential magazine.

Another vitally important factor at the time was that our tax code wanted to support the creation of new magazines, and so gave a two-for-one tax deduction for investments in publishing companies. As I would need money to start a magazine, a good tax deal would help in getting investors.

I had a friend in the advertising business, and he helped by sending me a very large package of magazine media kits. These are the brochures that magazines use to sell advertising space, and I made a quick study of these marketing aids. They told me how many subscribers a magazine has in each region of the country, and how involved the subscribers are with the editorial content of the magazine.

I began to learn the jargon of the publishing business, and more importantly, just how many firefighters there were in the country, and where they were located. This gave me the ability to stop acting like a fish out of water whenever I talked about the magazine I wanted to start.

Because I had become a minor celebrity in the fire department I came to meet a group of people on the fringe of the department I had not known. They are called fire buffs. I knew one fire photographer who used to hang around Engine 82, Harvey Eisner (who is now the magazine’s editor-in-chief), and I came to admire his photographs and the way he handled himself around firefighters, but the fire buffs I refer to were downtown big shots and friends of the fire commissioner. One, a man who owned a beautifully restored fire engine with the words Russell Fire Department emblazoned in gold across its doors, was an executive with a financial company on Wall Street. And so I wrote a six-page proposal listing the many reasons I thought firefighters needed their own magazine, and I brought it down to Wall Street and my friend and fire buff Bob Russell.

What happened then was surely one of the most surprising events of my life, for Bob simply read the proposal as I sat before his desk, put it down, smiled and said, “This is a great idea. I’ll give you $150,000 to help get it off the ground.” Even today, that is a huge amount of money, but in 1975 it was what I considered more money than banks had, and I had no inclination in my previous life that one could make a decision as consequential in so short a time. And, so, being now newly in business, I smiled in return, and said, “What now?”

Bob knew a man named Bartle Bull, who was the president and publisher of The Village Voice, a New York alternative newspaper, and over a plate of pasta we both convinced him that he should come to our venture as my partner and the magazine’s publisher. Bartle, in turn, knew a man named Jeff Byers, who owned a tall office building on 53rd Street in Manhattan, and who not only invested in the magazine but also gave us free office space for more than a year. I felt that I was a truly blessed person, and there was more good luck to come.

I met a guy named Hal Bruno. He says we met on a rooftop in the South Bronx during a fire, and I have made it a point in my 25-year friendship with Hal never to argue with him. He was then working as Newsweek magazine’s chief political correspondent, and I immediately asked him to write a column for us.

In the weeks thereafter, I had many meetings with Jeff, Bartle and an art director named Bill Free to design the first issue. I asked my good friend James T. Farrell, who had been nominated for a Nobel Prize, to write an article for us, and when I met the writer Leon Uris I asked him to write one too.

Bartle and I had countless lunches and breakfasts to tell our story to equally countless investors, and some invested, enough to meet our first year’s printing bills anyway. But, still, we were confronted with two major challenges. First, to get firefighters to subscribe to Firehouse®; and second, to persuade manufacturing companies that wanted to reach firefighters to buy advertising space.