Eisner: The Truth, the Whole Truth And Walking on Eggshells

Editor’s Note: The Firehouse staff wanted to share some of long-time Editor in Chief Harvey Eisner’s work. Harvey, a fixture on New York City firegrounds and at major events and conferences since the 1970s, passed away on Oct. 23. He was 59. He has worked with Firehouse since its inception in 1976. He began serving with the Tenafly, N.J., Fire Department in 1975 and served as chief for 12 years. 

Recently, I received an email from a reader who asked why we haven’t covered a fire that killed multiple firefighters. Typically, we request permission to cover major incidents such as fires, natural disasters and multiple firefighter fatalities. But no permission, no story, and it’s usually because litigation is involved.

A huge fire in 1982 damaged a super-sized warehouse to the tune of $100 million. The fire chiefs on scene called our office and alerted us to the magnitude of the incident. I drove to the scene four days into the seven-day operation to get the details. On occasion, I’ve spoken with chiefs who operated at major airplane crashes and who shared all the facts. During one conversation regarding a fire involving a jet, however, the chief abruptly hung up on me after he was ordered not to talk anymore.

All firefighters want to know what happened, how the incident was handled, how problems were overcome and what lessons were learned. That’s where we have excelled, but we have to wait for the right time. (One significant and newsworthy fire killed 100 people, but I am still waiting for permission to cover the incident.)

Lawsuits have always been around. Today, they seem part of nearly every incident. Lawyers for fire departments, families and others involved have hampered our ability to cover many incidents. You hear about the basic operations and then it is hush-hush.

The fire doesn’t simply burn up and the building burns down; there are always other factors. Was there a delay in responding? Was there a command error, a tactics problem or was it one or more of a hundred other reasons why things didn’t go right. A lot can go right or wrong on the fireground or at other types of emergencies. Disastrous fires, explosions and firefighter deaths continue to occur. Only the names and places change.

Today, everything is looked at under a microscope when something goes wrong. Fire departments, cities and towns don’t want to look bad and firefighters who operated at the scene don’t want some of these facts to come out if they are ugly to avoid further upsetting families who have lost loved ones. That’s why information is withheld and other people walk on eggshells.

Ten years ago, I attended an initial summit in Tampa, FL, out of which 16 firefighter life-safety initiatives were developed. Last month, I returned to Tampa, where the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) was holding a summit called “Tampa 2” to revisit all that has been done since the last summit on several levels and report on initiatives to continue the important work to reduce firefighter fatalities. With proper training and safety programs developed by the NFFF and others, we can prevent at least some line-of-duty deaths.

All we can do is strive to present the latest information to keep firefighters alive. We started “Close Calls” so firefighters could learn from others. We initially kept the locations of the incidents confidential, but now chiefs call us to say they want to provide information so other departments can learn from their close calls. We do all we can do to share information when the time is right. n