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Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words.

Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words. Dennis Smith. Doubleday, $18.95. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a fireman. This desire came not from hearing sirens and watching firetrucks, but from reading Smith's bestseller Report From Engine Company 82. 1 was convinced that no job could be as pure and good as fighting fires and saving lives, and this adolescent belief has been largely reaffirmed by Smith's latest book.

Kierkegaard said, "Purity of heart is to will one thing." If this is true, then firefighters have the purest of hearts. The one thing they will is to put out fires. According to Smith, "You go out on a job, you eat some smoke, you take a little heat, and you get the great satisfaction of confronting the flames and defeating them:' Purity of heart is to will one thing: death to the flames.

This book of interviews with paid and volunteer firefighters reveals that these civil servants do not worry about ambiguity. Firefighters are "all fundamentally good guys who care about other people," says one; "I joined the fire department because I believe in the individual in American society, individuals helping each other," says another. Who can argue with this?

Of course, firefighters are not saints. Smith describes the language around a firehouse as scatological: he once heard a firefighter use the "F word" 63 times in a commentary on the staleness of a bagel. (And the word wasn't fire.) There is prejudice in fire departments, directed against minorities. And firefighting can strain a family, since it requires so much time away from home. "But the fire department is my first love and always will be my first love," says one fireman. "When duty calls, I have to go.

From this kind of zeal comes courage, and courage is needed if a person is going to walk into flames and thick smoke and rescue people. You can't be lukewarm about a job that requires battling fires in ships, grain elevators, highrises, warehouses, and slums, constantly risking bums, smoke inhalation, and building collapses. But no firefighter is alone. Camaraderie grows from the things that firefighters see: "the shared grief, the loss of another fireman, the loss of a child at a fire, the unspeakable things."

Strangely enough, there is one simple innovation that would reduce the danger, a change that all firefighters would welcome: mandatory sprinkler laws. Sprinkler systems are extremely effective in stopping fire; in fact, there have never been multiple deaths in a building with an operational sprinkler system. But, according to Smith, politicians are in the pockets of the real estate and construction moguls who know that sprinkler installation cuts profits, so there are very few residential sprinkler laws in the United States. Voters should know, and will one thing: laws requiring sprinklers in all buildings. The passage of such laws would make us all firefighters, and would save 8,000 lives a year. -Henry G Brinton
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Author:Brinton, Henry G.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Words:493
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