The Fire Inside by Steve Delsohn


y648While there’s an abundance of television shows about police officers and more than a few about emergency medical folks, lesser attention is paid to fire fighters and their day-to-day dealings with disaster. But Steve Delsohn has found a wealth of material by interviewing scads of fire fighters across the country, from smoke jumpers flown in to fight forest fires to crews in action-filled urban departments. You learn the humorous lingo of fire fighting, where “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff” is paramount. You’ll also relive more than a few gripping, emotional stories–the kind that might make good fodder for a drama series.


Recently I ran across a metafilter thread titled What single book is the best introduction to your field for laypeople?  Go have a look – it’s chockablock with fascinating introductions to everything from materials science to brewing beer and graphic design to poetry.  I fell into the thread and emerged some time later with a longer TBR (so much good stuff!) and grabbed The Fire Inside from my e-library.  My brother recently became a volunteer firefighter and I wanted to learn more about what he’s doing.

This book is awesome for that.  It covers a large range of firefighting experiences – full-time paid, volunteer, wildland (think smokejumpers), women firefighters, paramedics, the gamut.  Delsohn interviewed over 100 people and let them speak anonymously so they can be perfectly honest about the highs and lows of their work.  The statements are short and grouped by topic under headings like Rookie Mistakes and The Psychological Toll.  The wide range of people interviewed makes for sweeping examples of things that can go right or wrong.  A section called The Scariest Things They Face is a list of situations I hope I never have to deal with – steam leaks that can boil you alive.  Booby traps in burning buildings.  Being overcome by a forest fire.  Riots.  Arriving at an assault before the police and facing down a shooter unarmed. Falling through a roof. There are juxtapositions, too – one person praising counseling after a deadly fire is followed by an old-timer too tough to talk about their feelings.

Delsohn does a great job pacing and ordering the stories so the reader isn’t faced with too much death and despair at a time.  That awful list of fears includes one firefighter deadpanning,

Well, none of us likes propane much.

I appreciate the well-placed chuckles and rescue stories amidst the more gruesome aspects of the job.

This book was written in 1996 and while it is a product of its time it has aged surprisingly well.  Hurricane Andrew and the Oklahoma City bombing are illustrative examples, as well as the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco.  While the equipment and disasters have changed over the last twenty years the basic principles – put the wet stuff on the red stuff – remain.  I would even argue that the age of the examples makes them feel more real, as the images aren’t seared into my brain like more recent events.

If you work in a medically-adjacent field, as I do, you’ll love the last chapter about EMS and paramedic care.  Where I grew up ambulances were separate from the fire department, but in many areas they are one and the same.

See, I have these three rules.  One is, You don’t spit on the floor of my ambulance.  Two is, You don’t get sick and throw up back there.  The third rule is, You don’t die in my ambulance when I am back there with you.

In particular I love the section about the importance of bedside manner, especially when the bed is a stretch of asphalt, including whether it’s okay to lie to a patient (“Doc, am I gonna make it?”).

If you couldn’t tell I love this book.  The stories are compelling and you get a feel for each firefighter even though they may only speak for a paragraph or two.  I wouldn’t recommend pulling it out in public, though, as rescues and failed rescues can be a surprise attack on the tear ducts.

Required reading for those who work with or are related to first responders, and guaranteed to be fascinating to pretty much everyone else.