The gold standard for firefighting memoirs used to be Dennis Smith's "Report from Engine Co. 82". Russell Wangersky has raised that bar several notches. Wangersky is first and foremost a talented writer, and brings that craftsmanship to bear full force in "Burning Down the House". His account of his years as a volunteer firefighter is lyrical, evocative and brutally honest. As a career firefighter myself for 25 years it is simply the best description I have ever read, of the job and the impact it can have on a firefighter's personal life. As an aspiring writer it is full of "Jeez, I wish I had written that!" moments. Most of us are not as deeply traumatized by the horrors we witness. Wangersky freely admits that he probably never should have become a firefighter. However, beyond simply being a great read, "Burning Down the House" accomplishes two significant tasks. First it gives recognition to the tremendous service that volunteer firefighters around the world render to their communities. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, he demolishes the stereotype of the firefighter as some sort of superhuman. As Wangersky so eloquently portrays, we fear, we bleed and we weep.
When I saw the title of this book, I thought it would just be about different fires, and the semantics involved to fight them. In other words, an 'adventure' story. This book has gone waaay beyond that - it is a courageous sharing of the emotional stresses & tolls that a firefighter faces and battles. Not just the fires are a battle. This 'expose' if you will has been a long time coming & it would behoove all of us - including the firefighters to recognize the emotional & internal toll that such a job (including our police force)takes from each one and implement an outlet for these courageous men & women to vent/share/process their internal demons. For the sake of their own emotional health as well as the families that they are involved with. Excellently written & I appreciate the little 'ad libs' at the end of each chapter. Well done!
I'm a rookie volunteer firefighter. I heard about this book from my somewhat-concerned brother, who had heard the author on CBC radio and was worried about the emotional and psychological costs of being a first responder.
The author was a volunteer firefighter, and then an officer in a volunteer company for about 8 years total. He walked away from that experience with what can be described as pretty severe PTSD not from one particular bad incident but by the accumulation of stresses common to firefighters.
People sometimes assume that things are easier for volunteer firefighters compared to career guys, but the author makes some interesting points that I am already starting to notice. For one thing, volunteers go home after calls, rather than staying at the stations and finishing out their shifts with their comrades. Volunteers are also on-call 24/7, unlike career guys who typicall serve long shifts and then go home "off the clock".
Now neither I nor the author am saying volunteers have it harder. Career guys have a ton of additional stressors, etc. It's just that anyone, myself included, who assumed that it would be rare for a volunteer to develop stress injuries/disorders as a firefighter need only read this book and think again.
I would recommend this book to firefighters, those thinking of becoming firefighters and especially to parents, partners and (adult) children of volunteer firefighters. The author opens up in a way that few if any firefighters are even going to do, even/especially with their loved ones. I've been on less than a year, but there are already a few things that I don't talk about with my wife, friends or day-job co-workers.