Fire Chief Harvey Eisner: A Major Driving Force in the American Fire Service
Harvey Eisner, a long time Editor of Firehouse Magazine, provided a view of the fire service through a camera lens that the public doesn't often get to see. He grew up as a boy in awe of the many fire stations and apparatus of the FDNY. This article is a glimpse of Harvey J. Eisner, the silent giant in the fire service that captured the American Firefighter's perspective of bravery and courage through his investigative reporting and photography.
Harvey Jay Eisner was born to Joseph and Carol Eisner on November 3, 1954. The Eisner family business sold fruit, vegetables, and other produce in New York under the business profile of B. Eisner Produce Corporation. As Harvey grew up, his parents knew that they needed to look no further than one of the nearest fire stations if they couldn't find him. As a youth, Engine 248 taught Eisner the telegraph on alarm bells. Into his adulthood, Harvey enjoyed visiting FDNY Rescue Co. 3 and the firehouse that housed Engine 94/Ladder 48.
Interested in photography, Harvey purchased a 35mm Konica camera as a teenager. He taught himself how to take pictures with no formal training and started buying different lenses to get better shots. His passion for photography would prove useful as his hobby progressed. Harvey captured the American firefighter's perspective through his camera.
As a young adult, Harvey read the book, Report from Engine Company 82 by Dennis Smith. FDNY Engine 82 is located at 1213 Intervale Avenue in the Borough of the Bronx, New York. Harvey went to visit the station in March of 1972 as the Engine company was returning from a call, managing to get his copy of Engine Company 82 autographed by Dennis Smith. He would often return to the station making long-time friends of the firefighters of Engine 82 and Ladder 31. The connection with Engine 82 and Ladder 31 would later open doors for Harvey with Firehouse Magazine.
After graduation, Harvey attended Oklahoma State University to study Fire Science and Fire Protection Engineering. He worked as a firefighter for the Stillwater Fire Department while attending school. One day, Harvey was working out in the gym when a call came in. As he slid down the fire-pole, his arms gave out from weightlifting, resulting in him falling and shattering his kneecap. The accident would keep Harvey from a career as a paid firefighter. Upon returning to New Jersey, Harvey became a volunteer firefighter for the Tenafly Fire Department in 1975. He was appointed Lieutenant in 1979, Captain from 1980 – 1986, Assistant Chief in 1987 and served as Fire Chief from 1988 for twelve consecutive years. After stepping down from Chief, he continued to serve in various roles until his retirement in 2010.
Dennis Smith published the charter September/October issue of Firehouse Magazine in 1976; an organization Harvey would significantly impact. Harvey showed Dennis a photo he captured of a fire worked by Engine 82 and Ladder 31. Impressed by the photographs' quality and perspective, Dennis requested Harvey to submit these photos to Firehouse Magazine. Harvey would stop by the Firehouse Magazine office and he would offer to do errands just to be involved with the publication. Being a constant site at the office, Harvey was offered a position with Firehouse Magazine in 1976. By 1977, Harvey captured several photographs from the South Bronx of New York and these were published in Firehouse Magazine.
Working for Firehouse Magazine, Harvey was able to travel to many significant events as they were happening. One of the first events was the Gardner's Warehouse fire on September 9, 1979. The five-alarm alarm fire in a heavy-timber warehouse located in Manhattan's west side took several hours to extinguish and many firefighting resources. During this incident, Eisner had the opportunity to interview several of the firefighters and fire chiefs on the scene. His article submission would remain relatively unchanged by the editors and was published in the November 1979 issue of Firehouse Magazine. Harvey found enjoyment in investigative reporting and sharing the American firefighter's perspective through his camera lens.
During the 1980s, Harvey reported on many noteworthy events. Incidents like the K-Mart distribution warehouse fire, Beverly Rooming House fire, Harlem Church fires and the Passaic Conflagration. Harvey was able to capture these remarkable incidents as they were occurring in real-time with his camera. Two of the most notable incidents covered by Harvey was the Chernobyl nuclear incident and the Hackensack Ford Dealership fire.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Disaster occurred on April 26, 1986. According to the NRC, within three months of the Chernobyl accident, a total of 31 people died from radiation exposure or other direct effects of the disaster. Deputy Chief Igor Fotievich Kimstach of the 200,000-member fire service, a branch of the Soviet military, had been frustrated with the coverage given by other media outlets, so an interview with Harvey was in jeopardy. Harvey explained that he wanted to interview Chief Kimstach from a firefighter's perspective to tell their story to the American Fire Service. The interview was a success except for the translator having difficulty translating the technical language of firefighting. Chief Kimstach remarked it was one of the best interviews and later presented at the Great American Firehouse Exposition Muster in 1987.
The Hackensack Ford Dealership fire occurred on July 1, 1988, and during this incident, a bowstring truss failed, and the collapse killed Five firefighters. Harvey visited the scene and attended the fallen firefighter's funerals. He developed a trust with many firefighters that allowed them to feel comfortable around him and even telling him things they did not share with their wives.
Harvey produced the first Firehouse Conference in 1983 in Baltimore, Maryland, called the Great American Firehouse Exposition Muster, which would later become the Firehouse Expo Conference. Firehouse Magazine would further their schedule to include the Firehouse Central Conference and the Firehouse World Conference. Harvey had a way to convince others to share their stories with the attendees of these conferences. Several attendees had the opportunity to talk with Harvey in the expo halls' hallways during the Firehouse Conferences.
Numerous lessons learned from these events in the 1980s resulted in significant fire prevention improvements, knowledge of building construction, and overall firefighter safety. Harvey Eisner shared realistic stories from a firefighter's perspective, and he became a major driving force in the American fire service. When the movie Backdraft was being cast with actor Robert De Niro playing a fire investigator, Harvey's work drew Robert De Niro to call him to help research a fire investigator's role. Harvey and Robert De Niro went through the script line by line, with Harvey sharing relevant material about a fire investigator's critical role. Impressed by Harvey, Robert De Niro offered him his home phone number and requested to ride along with him on an investigation of a fire.
The 1990s had several noteworthy events Harvey covered including, the Los Angeles Riots in Los Angeles County, California from April 29 through May 4, 1992, the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993, the Old Topanga fire, November 2-11, 1993, in Malibu, California and the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995. One of the most unforgettable events for Harvey occurred on March 25, 1990, when an arsonist killed eighty-seven people at the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx. The Happy Land social club had two exits that were close together with no rear exits or windows. The arsonist poured gasoline in the entranceway and ignited it, trapping people in the building. At the time, Harvey worked as a crime-scene photographer for the Bronx District Attorney's Office. Harvey walked among the dead bodies photographing the evidence and he captured through his camera lens the emotional toll from this fatal fire.
The Worcester Cold Storage fire began on December 3, 1999, at 266 Franklin Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. Six firefighters perished and extreme physical restraint was required by Incident Commander Mike McNamee to prevent further firefighters from entering the cold storage facility to find their fallen brethren. Harvey joined over 30,000 firefighters at the funeral for the Worcester Six. After the incident, Harvey interviewed Chief McNamee to share what had happened during this historical incident with the American fire service. District Chief McNamee gave Firehouse Expo attendees a sobering look at the Worcester Fire Department's operations when he presented at the conference in 2000.
The event that changed the world happened on September 11, 2001. Terrorists used airplanes to attack the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. These events would be very personal for Harvey because of his close connection to many of the FDNY firefighters and New York City Department heads. Harvey went on a fishing trip around Manhattan just three days earlier, with three firefighters that perished on 9/11. Harvey lost ninety-three friends that were also FDNY firefighters on that fateful day.
Firehouse Magazine would publish Eisner's interviews of the operations and recovery over the next several years. Before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Harvey started going back through his previous interviews. He conducted more in-depth interviews to honor the 9/11 firefighters by writing the book WTC: In Their Own Words. This book shared the stories of the firefighters' work done at the World Trade Center. With over ninety interviews conducted, including two-hundred-fifty pictures, maps, and diagrams, readers had the opportunity to learn of the many different fire department operations on the World Trade Center complex during 9/11. The 276-page publication also included a 52-minute DVD titled The Battle Continues, with additional video and radio traffic from that fateful day.
Between 2000 and 2010, Harvey would investigate several historical events of the decade, including the Station Night Club fire that occurred on February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island and Hurricane Sandy. Another historical event happened on January 23, 2005, a day known as Black Sunday. Two FDNY firefighters died during a multi-story building fire in the Bronx, and four others were badly hurt when they jumped from a fourth-floor window. One of those firefighters was a personal friend of Harvey's, Joseph P. "Joey D" DiBernardo. Joey broke multiple bones from the waist down and spent some time in a coma and rehabilitation to relearn how to walk. Eventually, DiBernardo passed away on November 22, 2011, due to complications from his injuries. In 2012, Lieutenant Joseph P. DiBernardo was awarded the New York City Medal of Supreme Sacrifice and the FDNY Medal of Valor for giving his life in the line of duty for the citizens of New York City. Harvey was instrumental in advocating for the Lieutenant Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation. This foundation assists fire departments in need of training and personal safety systems.
While Harvey never married, he had a long-time girlfriend, Jean Rank. Jean was a 22-year employee of Firehouse Magazine and encouraged Harvey to slow down his busy life and take vacations. Jean passed away in 2012 after a battle with cancer. On August 1, 2014, Timothy Sendelbach was appointed the Firehouse Editor-in-chief, with Harvey Eisner becoming Emeritus Editor.
The American fire service lost Chief Harvey Jay Eisner on October 23, 2014, after complications from Diabetes. Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. of the Congressional Fire Caucus said, "Harvey leaves behind an incredible legacy within the fire service. He was widely respected for his commitment and dedication to firefighter health and safety. It was reflected in his work. He was a pensive man who was always willing to share his thoughts and ideas on how the federal government can better serve our nation's first responders."
Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder said, "There is not a single firefighter on the streets today that Harvey didn't positively influence in his teachings, writings and amazing photography. Harvey was a dear friend to us and so many and a true brother to all in the fire service."
Many organizations have recognized Harvey Eisner's work including numerous firefighters. After his passing in 2014, Harvey's collection was donated to the National Fire Heritage Center by his mother Carol and brother Carey. In addition to personal items from his career, Harvey's collection included FDNY station logbooks, photographs of New York fires and apparatus and the source material for his book on the attack of the World Trade Center in 2001. The FDNY appointed Eisner as an Honorary Assistant Chief. Firehouse Magazine inducted Eisner into the Firehouse Hall of Fame on July 17, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland. The National Fire Heritage Center also inducted Eisner to the Hall of Legends, Legacies, and Leaders: Class 2016, Inductee #46.
A special thanks to Carey Eisner, brother of Harvey Eisner, for taking the time to interview and share his memories. Carey Eisner shared this statement, "This article captures the life of a driving force in the American Fire Service. Harvey lived and breathed firefighting. He loved firefighters; their courage and commitment to saving lives. He was a true advocate for his brothers in the American Fire Service and loved every minute of it. He studied, soaked up on the job knowledge, and loved conducting hands-on training. Education, training, preparation, and safety is what he preached. No one was more proud of being a firefighter and advocating for firefighters from coast to coast." After his death, one friend wrote: "Thank you, Harvey, for your insight, advocacy, and enthusiasm for the fire service."
Cover Photo: Assistant Chief Harvey Eisner of the Tenafly (NJ) Fire Department operating at a multiple alarm fire in Englewood, New Jersey, (Photo by Ron Jeffers).