History of the San Francisco Fire Department
Fire Operations During the 1906 Earthquake
by Patrick H. Shaughnessy
1906 Death of Chief
1907 AWSS Proposal By Rolla
1911 AWSS Civil Service Questions
1925 AWSS History
1989 AWSS Earthquake Damage
Supplementary Particulars Concerning Proposed
System for San Francisco
by Rolla V. Watt
Rolla Watt was a well-known fire insurance underwriterthe turn of the twentieth century, and a prominent member of the San Francisco Board of Fire
Commissioners. He delivered this paper April 10, 1907, in San Francisco, before the
Commonwealth Club of California.
The system, built basically as descibed by Mr. Watt, continues to offer primary fire protect
to San Francisco and is undergoing expansion and modernization.
Ordinance No. 126 (new series) of the board of supervisors approved
January 2, 1907, directed that the board of public works procure though the city engineer
and file with the supervisors plans and estimates of the cost of an auxiliary water system
for fire protection and for sanitary and flushing purposes.
In compliance with the above ordinance the work of preparing the plans was immediately
commenced by the city engineer, Mr. Thos. H. Woodward and his assistant, Mr. H.D.
Connick. Mr. T.W. Ransom was employed as consulting mechanical engineer to assist and
advise the city engineer. His report and the report of the city engineer, together with the
required plans and estimates of cost are well under way and will presented to the board of
supervisors through the board of public works early in May.
The area to be protected, about 3,000 acres, was determined upon after consultation with
the chief of the fire department, secretary of the Merchants' Association, and a number of
the local representatives of the insurance companies.
The system, as at present outlined, will consist of a network of pipes in two zones, two
fresh-water reservoirs for supplying water under ordinary conditions, two
distributing systems, two auxiliary salt-water pumping stations located on the water
front for use in the event of a general conflagration, two fire boats, a number of cisterns
located at points of vantage in the residence and business districts, and an independent
telephone service for the sole use of the fire department.
The two storage reservoirs, each having a capacity of 5,000,000 gallons, are to be located
on Twin Peaks in the vicinity of the intersection of Twentieth and Cole streets. The capacity
of these reservoirs will be equal in amount to th continuous delivery of twenty of the city's
ordinary steam fire engines for sixteen hours. For shorter periods of time greater quantities
can be delivered. From the reservoirs the water will flow through two eighteen-inch
pipes, each of which will traverse a different route, to the distributing reservoir of the upper
zone, located in the vicinity of Seventeenth and Ashbury streets, which will have a capacity
of 600,000 gallons. This reservoir will be connected with the distributing reservoir of the
lower zone, which will be constructed in Jones Street between Sacramento and Clay
streets. Its capacity will be 1,000,000 gallons.
These reservoirs will keep the mains in each zone filled under a moderate pressure and will
serve for all ordinary fires. The fire-engine house will be located in the vicinity of
each, with men on duty at all times who will turn on the high pressure when called for.
The distributing system of each zone will consist of a network of cast-iron pipes
interconnected so as to obtain perfect a circulation as possible, together with the necessary
valves and hydrants, and a number of fire-boat connections. The hydrants are to be
so placed that 15,000 gallons per minute can be concentrated on an area in the old
congested-value district of 100,000 square feet. In the other portions of the
protected district the amount that can be concentrated on any block varies from 8,000
gallons per minute to 12,000 gallons per minute. The gates or shut-off valves so
arranged that any one block may be cut off for the purpose of making repairs or inspection
without affecting the hydrants in any other blocks.
From the experience gained in the earthquake of April 18, 1906, it is possible to state that
an earthquake of equal intensity will not seriously affect distribution pipes properly laid on
solid ground, and that it is doubtful whether it is possible to construct pipe-lines in
such a manner that they will not be apt to be rendered useless in ground that is liable to
suffer serious displacement because of earthquake shock. In the proposed system none of
the main pipes will be laid in streets in the filled-in portions of the city, and in
addition to using every precaution in laying the smaller pipes in the streets, it is proposed to
so arrange the system that by closing not over ten gate valves, all of the portions of the
system constructed in these districts can be cut off, thus minimizing the danger of an
earthquake disabling the entire system by breaking a large number of pipes in a
comparatively small area.
The salt-water pumping-plants will be two in number, one situated near the
foot of Second Street and the other near the foot of Van Ness Avenue. Each station will be
of sufficient size to provide for the installation of machinery to pump 16,000 gallons per
minute against a pressure of 300 pounds per square inch, together with quarters for the
men necessary for its operation. For the present, it is proposed to install at each station
sufficient mechanical equipment to pump 10,000 gallons per minute against a pressure of
300 pounds per square inch. They will be located on foundations of solid rock. Every
precaution will be taken to make them earthquake proof, as well as fire proof, and they will
be so interconnected by pipes laid on solid ground that the destruction of an entire station
will not seriously affect the usefulness of such parts of the system as may remain intact.
In addition, it is proposed to provide at least two fire boats, each having a capacity of 8,000
gallons per minute against a pressure of 150 pounds per square inch, or 4,000 gallons per
minute against a pressure of 300 pounds per square inch. Under ordinary circumstances
these boats will be used for the protection of shipping and wharves in the port of San
Francisco, but in case an earthquake should result in the destruction of part of the piping
system, they will be available to pump into other parts of the system through connections
provided on the water front or hose-lines run into the city, as circumstances may
The existing fire cisterns are to be repaired and placed in use, and a number of new ones,
ranging in capacity from 25,000 to 100,000 gallons are to be recommended for immediate
construction. These cisterns, which will be built of reinforced concrete, are to be so located
that they will offer a maximum protection to filled-in areas and localities where the
distribution system is most liable to injury.
The telephone system will be so designed that a fire in any part of the protected district can
be observed from at least one call station, and orders regarding the pressure required may
be transmitted to the engineers at the pumping-station or the gatemen at the pressure
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