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  Dennis Smith: “They weren’t built right”
Publicado - Published: 11/09/2006

Dennis Smith, former firefighter from New York, Founder and Editor of “Firehouse Magazine” in an exclusive interview for “”

Jose Musse: How is it that you choose to become a firefighter?

Dennis Smith: Well, you know growing up in New York, the way I grew up, you didn’t have many choices and if you can get through high school you can be a firefighter, law enforcement or you can be the President of the United States. Generally, people in my neighborhood did not go to college and my brother in fact was the first person in my whole family who ever went to college. I didn’t even go to high school; I left school in the eighth grade. I returned to school many years later. After I became a firefighter I went to college in the evening. I got a bachelors degree in Literature and then I got a Masters degree in Communication, so all the time working in the busiest fire house in the world.

Jose Musse: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Dennis Smith: Just one, a brother and he is a Professor.

Jose Musse: Did you ever regret becoming a firefighter?

Dennis Smith: No, never, not for a minute. Firefighting is one of those professions where you don’t get paid very much, firefighters are very under paid. All over the world, even though their underpaid the distinctions between pay is great. For instance, in New York firefighters receive $35,000 to $42,000 a year. In Los Angeles they receive $90,000. So $90,000 is a pretty good salary, I ask myself why are Lawyers and doctors getting more than this. Because they have education levels, but firefighters have training levels, which are just as important and in fact probably a good case can be made that firefighters don’t save as many lives as doctors at the end of the year, but they save a lot of lives, certainly they save more lives than lawyers.

Jose Musse: What were your best and worst moments as a firefighter?

Dennis Smith: I think my best moment was anytime I had what we call a good job, that is when a fire coming out of three, four windows and you go in and work with those people and the closeness you feel after the job. You got threw that, it was a hard job, your beat up, your dirty and but your close with the people you work with and that makes you really feel good that you did this as a team. It’s a team effort.

The worst time was of course 9/11, but it’s not the first time. I was at the fire on 23rd street where we lost 12 firemen in 1967, it was the worst time the New York City Fire Department ever had and I thought that that would be my worst time. You know going to those wakes and the funerals, dozens of funerals I went to and seeing those families, it was a very difficult time.

Jose Musse: How did the idea of writing your book “Report From Engine Co. 82” come about?

Dennis Smith: I am very lucky in that somebody from a publishing company asked me to write a book. They came to me and they said, would you write this book for us, and that’s because I wrote an article in “The New York Times”. They saw the article and called my up and then they said would you write a book about being a fireman and I said sure. I was in college at that time. I was in my last semester working on my masters degree.

Jose Musse: In this moment were you a firefighter, when you were writing this book?

Dennis Smith: Yes, I was working in Engine 82.

Jose Musse: Did you in your wildest dreams think that your book would sell two million copies and that it would be translated in 13 languages?

Dennis Smith: No, I never thought that really. At home I have a shelve of books that I have written in different languages and so it makes me feel good when I see that people all over the world have seen these things. No, I never thought that anything like that would happen. I was very lucky again I am a great believer in luck. I think God has been good to me and my family and the firefighters themselves have supported everything I have done. They supported “Firehouse Magazine”, tremendous success today, important magazine. They supported the financial things that I do. I just have my brand new Chase credit card. They have also supported my company it is my dream come true to provide better service for First Responders.

Jose Musse: What kind of reactions did you get from the New York Fire Department?

Dennis Smith: They were great. Firemen were great, they loved it, and there was so much attention on the fire department. I am not the kind of person where I want the attention on me, I didn’t care about that. I always like to have the attention on the people I work with, even here in this company I have working with me Pete Hayden, the former Chief of the New York Fire Department works here with me and I like to talk about him a lot because he is a great man and he was to me, the real hero of 9/11. The firefighters have always been wonderful to me.

Jose Musse: How did this book change your life?

Dennis Smith: Any time you sell a million of anything, it will change your life. If you sell a million can openers you can get 10¢ for each, it would be pretty good. For those of you mathematical people that’s $100,000. It gave me a platform when I was a young man, I was 29 years old. I think I am the most published writer in “The New York Times” (Op-Ed Page) it gave me a platform to speak to all the firefighters in America and also to all American people. Something terrible happens, they call and they ask me to write something for them. That’s a big newspaper, “The New York Times” and that came about from that book, so I have a standing and that’s what has really changed my life. I have five children; one of them works here with me. The others got good educations and good jobs. I think I would have lead a good life even if I didn’t write a good book. I think I would have become a school teacher. I love school teachers, they’re also under paid.

Jose Musse: Are the characters in your book real of fiction?

Dennis Smith: It is completely true; this is “Report from Engine Company 82”. I wrote 14 books and people tend to mix one book with another. That’s what I had to be very, very careful with, in the fire department. When you write about so many men you have to be very accurate on what you say and you need to be very direct and honest with those people and your portrayal of them and I was, so consequently they felt very good about it.

Jose Musse: Are the names real?

Dennis Smith: No, the names were changed and the publisher made me do this and I am sorry that we did, for instance McCartty, his real name is McCarthy, I changed one letter in every name, so they can tell who they are and their families can tell. I had to change it because the lawyer said unless I go and get a signed document from everyone of them, I could not publish their names and so it was difficult for me and there were so many people I couldn’t ask them all to sign documents. I just changed the name like Willy Knapps, I call him Knipps in the book or Benny Carroll, his real name is Benny Cassidy. They all sort of grew up with these names themselves.

Jose Musse: Do you still keep in contact with those firefighters?

Dennis Smith: Yeah, I still talk to Charlie McCarthy all the time. Vinny Boin, he is number two in the International Association of Fire Fighters. I talk to them all the time, there good friends.

Jose Musse: Did you loose any friends on September 11th; have any of them been part of your books?

Dennis Smith: Many. No. Although, Freddy Scholls, he was a firefighter with me. I have written about him in one of my books. His son died on 9/11 so there was that connection.

Jose Musse: The public image of firefighters among New Yorkers is that of muscular men that appear in calendars, on the other hand you are a man with intellectual characteristics. Is it that both converge in the New York Fire Department? Is this frequent?

Dennis Smith: I wish Pete Hayden were here, who was the Chief of the Fire Department in New York and you could meet him. He was a very thoughtful man. Yes I think it converges very often. There are a lot of firemen who are lawyers and professors in the New York City Fire Department. I worked with one fireman who was the President of the American Society of Orchidologist. He grew orchids and he was an expert in orchids. There are 12,000 firemen in the New York Fire Department.

Jose Musse: What kind of reflection do you have after serving the public as a firefighter and knowing that there has been talk about bribes to firefighters with regard to the “Triangle Shirt Waist Company” fire of 1911, the “Coconut Grove” fire of 1942 and the “Happy Land Social Club” fire of 1992?

Dennis Smith: I read books about all of those fires and in fact I wrote a book called “Dennis Smith’s History of Fire Fighting”, which I wrote about each one of those fires. Let’s start with the Triangle fire, 405 girls died by jumping from the roof. They worked in the garment industry at sewing machines. They violated the codes (the building owner) because the girls would go on the fire escape and take cigarette breaks. So they locked and chained the doors, most of the girls in there died. There was also problem with the elevator in the building, it was out of code. To my knowledge nobody ever went to jail and paid a big price for that. It’s a terrible thing, building codes are very important in your world. Not many people take time to think about it. Pete Hayden, Chief of the Fire Department in New York was very much against the building of the World Trade Center. He said the open areas are too great, there are not enough exits, there are only three exit stair wells and they weren’t big enough. The Port Authority had the right to circum navigate the building code; they had the right to do what they wanted to do because they are a separate State Entity. So they built them any way, Hayden was right they weren’t built right and that’s why they collapsed.

Jose Musse: What did the firefighters learn from 9/11?

Dennis Smith: I don’t think the firefighters learned more than the American public did and not even the people from Spain, Peru or Mexico nor any other Hispanic country. You have to be vigilant because the world is a dangerous place. There is a group of people who are radical Islamic and who are against Western civilization. There against the way we live, think, respect our women and the way we educate our children. They’re against all that and they want to bring our society down because of their religion.

Jose Musse: What did the firefighters learn from Hurricane Katrina?

Dennis Smith: What I learned, I can’t really speak for all the firefighters because New York sent 800 firefighters to help in New Orleans. It was hard work for them. They learned that in catastrophes you need people in charge who know what they are doing and people who have spent their lives in the emergency services. There were three people I thought, who were at fault there, who did not do a good job. The first is the Governor of the state, Ms. Blanco, the second is the Mayor and the third is the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Those three people really did not know enough about emergency services either before the event or after the event to deal with it. There are many illustrations where I could prove this is true. In emergencies you need people who know what they are doing. You have to get politicians out of it. Had the Governor of Louisiana called the Federal Government in one day sooner, it would have been better. But, she didn’t do that, she waited and it was a terrible mistake. The Federal Emergency Management Agency should not have waited for Louisiana to ask them, they should of started mobilizing their people instantly so that they knew inevitably that the Governor was going to ask them to come in and they would have been ready. They didn’t do a good job.

Jose Musse: How did the “Firehouse Magazine” start?

Dennis Smith: It started because I sat down reading a magazine one day and kept reading it and I finally said, there’s not one thing in this magazine that interests me, not one. I put it down and I thought about it and I said I could write a magazine that would interest every body. I wrote a proposal for a magazine and I went to a friend of mine, very wealthy man and I said, I want to create this magazine and he said its a great idea let me raise the money. We raised a few million dollars and started the magazine.

Jose Musse: What year?

Dennis Smith: In 1975, its 30 years old.

Jose Musse: Why is it that if your book was read in 13 languages, there is no versions in Spanish, French or Chinese of Firehouse Magazine?

Dennis Smith: It’s a very good question and it’s because the people who now own the magazine don’t have in my mind, the wisdom and foresight to go to those countries and to develop co-publishing deals.

Jose Musse: What is First Responders about?

Dennis Smith: If you go to, it’s a two sided company. On one side we have financial services like credit cards and Mortgages. The credit cards are with Chase Bank, Mortgages are with Citi Corp. I am now working on contracts with other very big companies who I can’t tell you but I have a contract with Merrill Lynch to sell certificates of deposit. We are making a big headway into this business and I modeled my company on USAA, which is a company that serves military people in America and TIAA Craft, which serves teachers. We only serve First Responders, you have to be a First Responder to come to our company and the deals that we have we feel are the best possible that they can get anywhere. Our mortgage program, for instance, is a really great and fine reputable mortgage deal with Citi Corp. Which is the largest bank in the world, of course its a great institution. We require business with important companies, only important companies doing good deals for First Responders. That’s the nature of our business. On the insurance side, we have home, auto, life insurance, professional liability and catastrophic injury insurance. We are in the last stages of negotiating for insurance. We’re not even a year old; we opened our doors on October of last year. This October will be one year. It takes a long time to develop contracts with these big companies. It takes a lot of meetings, investigations and research, and we are doing very well in this company. This company will be like “Firehouse Magazine”. It will be known all over the world as a company that First Responders will go to if they need mortgage or bank loans of any kind or they need credit cards or investment products for their retirement accounts.

Jose Musse: How would you like to be remembered in future generations?

Dennis Smith: I think that the people in the future will look back and say goodness he worked hard; he did a lot of things. I would like my own epitaph, if there has to be an epitaph... I am just thinking of the great comedian W.C. Fields when he died. He said I want on my tombstone to say “I rather be in Philadelphia” I think that just the fact that what motivated me in every thing I have done and I’ve had great success. It was not a personal profit in any way so that I tried to make the First Responders and the firefighters lives better. That’s the way I want to be remembered.

Comentarios / Comments  
Katharine Weber - 11/09/2006
Dennis Smith has many of his facts wrong with regard to the Triangle fire of 1911.
Chief Robertson - 18/09/2006