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 that time a working firefighter in the Bronx, a job I loved in the same way I loved my family and my friends. Firefighting was an integral part of my life, like a leg of a stool – it gave me balance and stability to be a part of a department and a tradition that I was proud of. I could not envision a life without running with 20 or 30 pounds of equipment, alongside people I admired and respected, into burning buildings.
Firefighting, firefighters and the fire department were my life, something that people outside of the firefighting force find difficult to understand. It was how I defined myself. I surrounded myself with firefighting memorabilia like Engine Co. 82 mugs, Emerald Society beer steins, prints (from the firefighters union) of old steam pumpers, a framed axe with my name burnt into the handle, an old brass 21ž2-inch nozzle I found in a flea market and my prized possession, a 19th century History of the New York Fire Department that weighs about 14 pounds. I kept that book on the bookshelf behind my desk in my house in Garrison, NY, 40 minutes’ drive north of my firehouse.
Also on that bookshelf were 12 copies of the book I had written three years before, Report from Engine Co. 82, each copy in a different language, and a few copies of my recently published first novel, The Final Fire.
I then subscribed to two firefighting magazines, and I remember sitting at my desk when one of my three sons brought the mail, including one of these magazines (I know you will forgive me for not mentioning the name) into my office. I took it in my hands, put my feet up on the desk, and plopped it into my lap. The table of contents was a disappointment, as it usually was, but I read these magazines every month because I was a firefighter, and I believed I should be an informed firefighter.
I don’t remember exactly the title of the article that startled me into thinking about a new magazine, but it was something like, “The PSI Distribution of Hydraulic Pressures in the New Fog Nozzles.” I don’t think, I said to myself, that I really need to read this article. All I want to know is how many departments are using the new nozzles, in what kind of fires, are they safer and more effective in a fire, and why?
It was at that moment, there with a firefighting magazine on my lap, that I began thinking about what firefighters need to know. And, I thought about the need to know in its broader sense. For instance, the technical application of mathematics on the country’s gross domestic product when I buy a loaf of bread is not important to me. But knowing the price of the bread, its healthfulness and its availability are vital to me.
Suddenly, all the possibilities of sharing information that I had studied when working for a master’s degree in communications began to form in my mind. There is a place and a need for highly technical information, but I knew that firefighters wanted more realistic on-the-scene information about fighting fires in the various parts of our great nation, information that related directly to their everyday firefighting lives. This information existed, but if they didn’t get it from their local newspapers, it did not exist for our firefighters.
Yes, I thought, we need a new magazine for today’s firemen. And, why not just call it Today’s Firemen, write it, put it together and print it up? But, wait, the International Association of Fire Fighters had just started a campaign that said, “Firemen stoke fires, but firefighters fight them,” and I certainly was not going to be insensitive to the largest fire service organization in the world. So I need another title, I thought. Thus, Firehouse® Magazine.
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.
Bartle had worked on political campaigns in New York, and so approached the subscription challenge as a campaign. First, write to every firefighter and convince him (now it would be him and her) that Firehouse® had many important and interesting things to tell them. Fine, but what are their addresses?
We came to the idea of writing to every fire chief in the country, because their names and addresses were available, asking them to help us start the magazine by sending us their lists of firefighters with their home addresses (I did this again just recently to begin another venture that I think important to firefighters). To my greatest satisfaction, more than 42% of out fire chiefs sent me their lists, and we had, lo and behold, the names and addresses of enough firefighters to enable us to get the magazine off the ground with 50,000 subscribers.
The second challenge, the selling of ad space, was met by hiring someone who would be with Firehouse® from the beginning to now. Longevity is important, and Firehouse® has been fortunate to have this man prevail in his work through thick times and thin. That is our publisher, Bruce Bowling, who still maintains that we hired him because he had red hair and we thought he was Irish. It didn’t matter what we thought, aside from the fact that we liked him a lot, for he went on to be a bastion on the business side of the fire service, known to every man and woman in the country who has a product to sell to firefighters or fire departments. He also became my partner in the firm. If you need business done in the fire service, I think it is safe to advise, see Bruce.
It was not easy to build a national magazine of good reputation, but it is as satisfying to me to see Firehouse® as it is today as to see that my five children have become good citizens and contributing young adults.
To say that it was fun and exciting is like saying that firefighters respond when the alarm is called. I had the pleasure of meeting congressmen, senators and presidents, but most of all I met thousands of great people over the years, all of whom who spend a lot of time on fire trucks.
Firehouse® Magazine has matured, and is by all accounts the fundamental voice in the American fire service. I am privileged to have had something to do with it, and I offer my gratitude to the many, many professionals who helped us edit, write and sell it over the years.