As Firehouse Sees It: Remembering an Icon: Dennis Smith

Feb. 14, 2022
Peter Matthews reminds everyone of how important Firehouse Magazine founder Dennis Smith was to the U.S. and global fire service.

This year started off with a difficult reality check on firefighting. A Los Angeles County firefighter died in an early morning house fire, a second-generation St. Louis firefighter was killed in a collapse at a house fire and three Baltimore firefighters perished when a rowhome collapsed on them. A fourth Baltimore firefighter survived but suffered serious injuries. In Mineral Point, WI, two firefighters were killed in a fiery crash after their apparatus was struck by a semitrailer, and a Barstow, CA, firefighter succumbed to his injuries weeks after he was struck on a highway. At press time, 15 LODDs were reported by the U.S. Fire Administration in the first 27 days of January.

Just five days into the new year, 12 people perished in a Philadelphia rowhome fire that likely was started by a child. Just four days later, the unimaginable happened again: 17 people died in a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx. Those two fires are among the top nine deadliest home fires in the past 42 years.

On the third-alarm ticket for the Bronx fire, Engine 82 turned out, just as it did hundreds of thousands of times before. The crew made the less-than-three-mile trip from the famed Intervale Avenue firehouse to the chaotic scene and did what FDNY’s bravest do every day: They went to work.

Two weeks later, Engine 82 would be the talk of current and retired firefighters across the world when we learned about the passing of Dennis Smith, who made Engine 82 a household name with his book, “Report from Engine Co. 82.”

Dennis didn’t grow up with the desire to become a firefighter. He just took the FDNY entrance exam and became a firefighter’s firefighter. A champion of the job who wanted to leave it better than he found it. And he did in the best way that he knew how: putting the pen to paper.

Dennis, who went on to create ­Firehouse Magazine, author more than a dozen books, inspire countless people to become firefighters and tell the story of life from a firefighter’s perspective, died at age 81 on Jan. 21.

Many have referred to Dennis as a Renaissance man, and that is a most fitting term to summarize a person who dedicated so much to the fire service. His love for firefighting had him travel down numerous avenues in support of firefighters—whether it was the start of this publication in 1976, leading the development of FDNY’s fire museum, helping to create the National Firefighter Near Miss Reporting system or writing. Long after he left Firehouse, he continued to write to support the fire service. He penned many editorials that led the public to understand the why’s and how’s of firefighting. This was before social media and fire departments’ capability to share their own stories with the masses.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, his writings told the difficult truths, that local and national governments needed to pay attention to terrorism and needed to provide funding for all branches of the emergency services, to improve communications, data-sharing and training. Following a deadly fire in New York City, not only did he let newspaper readers know about fire safety, but he shared with them the mental toll on firefighters who witness tragedy time and time again and how that can break even the strongest, reminding people that firefighters are human, too.

There couldn’t have been a more perfect person to start Firehouse. Dennis’ own yearning to learn more and to be open-minded helped to inspire firefighters for the past five decades. He created the means to challenge firefighters to think and learn, and he embodied the concept that firefighters need a means to exchange their knowledge.

Thank you, Dennis, for all of your contributions to the fire service. Thank you for providing the fire service with a home to share. We will continue to carry on your mission.

Thank you to Jim Smith

I would like to give a tip of the helmet to Jim Smith as we publish his final “Fire Studies” column this month. Jim shared his experiences garnered from working the streets in Philadelphia and teaching with the National Fire Academy (NFA) for the past 34 years, and we will miss seeing his work. Jim’s efforts, through Firehouse, the NFA, his textbooks and teaching in person have educated countless firefighters and made them smarter and better prepared the next time that the bell rings.

Jim, thank you! 

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