More smoke than firefighting

Firefighters, Their Lives in Their Own Words, by Dennis Smith. New York: Doubleday. 320 pp. $18.95. False alarm.

Well, almost. ``It takes a dedicated, committed, and courageous person to enter the blind, boiling darkness of a building on fire, to crawl through poisonous smoke, to confront the threat of the flames,'' writes Dennis Smith in the preface to his new book. To that, amen.

But Smith, the author of ``Report from Engine Co. 82'' (1.7 million copies sold, one of my favorite books), gives readers too much smoke and not enough fire in ``Firefighters. Only after 151 pages of the verbal equivalent of polishing chrome and winding hose do we fight a fire.

No one else writes about the smoke-eating heroes as well as Smith, who spent 18 years in the New York City Fire Department and is an honorary deputy chief in the Big Apple. The ideal of service drives the book, as well it might for this work, where the on-the-job risk is life itself. Ask any insurance actuary, firefighters - more than deep-seam coal miners, more than policemen, more than bomb-detonation experts - have the least assurance when they punch in for a shift that they'll punch out at the other end.

This book's flaw is that Smith plays so small a part in it. His voice disappears. It echoes, ever so faintly, cut off in a stylistic firetrap, as editor of numerous, far too numerous, taped transcripts from interviews he has conducted with dozens of working firefighters from cities and towns, paid and volunteer departments.

His tape recorder has an ear for the working-class hopes and fears, joys and pains, values and beliefs of firefighters. But he plays back too much of the tape, at least for a general audience. The many interviews drown out individual resonance. Smith's ability to pump curbside realism into the enterprise of fighting fires, which made his previous book a best seller, is as absent as the pressure in a fire hydrant on a hot August day. Conversations about the lives of firefighters aren't enough. Fighting fires is.

Smith batches his queries into themes, each a chapter in the book: choosing to be a firefighter; training and first fire; firehouse life; firefighting and rescues; family life; what it means to be a firefighter. Only sociologists and firefighters will wade through all the sincere but prosaic statements about why Chuck, Danny, Leroy, Sally, and Al consciously, lovingly, haphazardly, blindly, hopefully, joined the fire department, eat spaghetti, lift weights, and raise kids.

Another shortcoming: Other than submarines, it would be hard to imagine a setting more challenging to the equal treatment of the sexes than a firehouse. You either have confidence in your buddy when your life is on the line or you don't. Very, very, little is said about this, yet the title of the book shows its impact.

Most readers are more interested in hearing about ``how I fight a fire'' and ``what I fight it with'' rather than ``why I fight fires.'' Only Chapter 4 ignites.

We step off a ladder five stories up - and freely enter a roaring inferno. We put one foot over a windowsill on solid metal. The next step lands us five stories down - it was the ledge of an elevator shaft. We free-fall into midnight, distance measured by bumps and thuds into beams and walls. We survive the fall only to risk drowning because, back broken, we have landed in three feet of water in a basement flooding from the five 2-inch hoses raining Niagara on the fire above.

Time inside a fire is different. It wraps and envelopes psychologically. We see what it means to be trapped under the wall of a building while flames lick a few feet away. Knees rub raw from a crawl flat on our stomach in a blackened room with a left hand tracking the walls, feeling for a window, a 250-pound woman, clothes burned into her flesh, locked in our still-unburned right arm.

We find the high that comes when a line of buddies ``stand and take heat.'' We grab the squirming hose pulsing like life itself, warriors fighting the elemental battle between water and fire. We learn of the weight all firemen carry as one brings the news to a wife that her husband isn't coming home, carefully avoiding the question if it will be a closed-coffin funeral.

At the outset, Smith states with characteristic bluntness why he became a fireman, why he chose a civil-service job over a construction job. ``The reason is simple: there's this huge, Buddha-like symbol that makes you fall on your knees and say, `This is what is going to direct my life.' It's called a pension. The fire department has a twenty-year pension system.''

A lot of fires since then, it's clear he stayed a fireman for more than the pension. But one gets the uneasy feeling that this book suffers from a similar Buddha beckoning - sales. Next time around, the author had better fight fires.

Jim Bencivenga is on the Monitor staff.

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