Museum of the City of San Francisco
By Subject
By Year
The Gift Shop

Related Museum Links

Celebrating the Centennial - 1876

How the Fire Alarm Telegraph is Worked - 1877

Fire Alarm Operations during the Great Earthquake and Fire - 1906

Construction of The Central Fire Alarm Station - 1912

House of Alarm Bells - CFAS - 1937

Fire Alarm Operations during the 1989 Earthquake

San Francisco Fire Department
Central Fire Alarm Station

Smoke and ashfall conditions at the time of the strike teams' dispatch had worsened within the City and County of San Francisco, about 10 miles west of the conflagration zone.

The Department's switchboard received hundreds of telephone calls per hour because of the extreme smoke and accompanying heavy ashfall which in some places was in excess of three-quarters of an inch. In other places smoking pieces of paper and other burning debris fell into the streets.

Foehn-type winds – locally known as "Santa Ana's" – characterized by hot, downslope winds from the interior valleys, were blowing the main body of smoke over the City at the time of the mutual aid request. There was extreme concern that burning debris thrown from the conflagration would cause fires in San Francisco.

Some concerned citizens in San Francisco wet down rooftops. Others transmitted dozens of good-faith smoke alarms over the Municipal Street Telegraph System.

Hundreds of people gathered on hilltops to watch the vast smoke cloud rising above Oakland.

Three telephone operators – Leanne M. Lash, Cassie Matheson, and Dorothy L.Teupel – were recalled to duty to field the tremendous call volume.

Because of these unsettled conditions, Chief of Department Postel responded to Central Fire Alarm Station after the dispatch of the two strike teams. Upon arrival, he began the recall of his command staff in preparation for long-term, large-scale operations.

At 12:47 p.m., The Oakland incident commander – according to a transcript of Oakland radio tapes – asked that department's fire alarm dispatcher to order ten more engines from San Francisco. However, that request was not received at Central Fire Alarm Station in San Francisco.

At 1:05 p.m., the Treasure Island Fire Department, which is within the City and County of San Francisco, directly offered to Oakland Fire Alarm a truck company, and it was dispatched. A Treasure Island department engine was later sent to Oakland.

Temporary Assistant Chief John J. Hickey was recalled from home and arrived at the Communications Center at 1:30 p.m.

A call at 1:30 p.m. came from Battalion Chief Tracey by Department radio which relayed a request from Oakland command for two more strike teams. This request for 10 additional engines – one-third of all engines left in service in San Francisco – could not initially be filled because 25 percent of the pumping capacity of the Department had been already responded to Oakland, with 20 percent of the on-duty firefighters.

The State Office of Emergency Services Region II fire coordinator in Santa Rosa ordered the response of OES Engine 217 to Oakland at 2:04 p.m.

At 2:05 p.m. Mayor Agnos arrived at Central Fire Alarm Station.

OES Engine 217 stored at the quarters of Engine 25, responded to Oakland at 2:10 p.m. with personnel from Truck 9 which was placed out of service. This truck company was later placed back in service with recalled personnel.

Chief Postel was extremely concerned by early reports on the Department radio of deteriorating fire conditions within the conflagration zone, the increasing smoke and ash cloud, and the smoking debris falling within San Francisco.

He was also concerned that continuous operations under extreme heat and fire conditions would lead to rapid physical exhaustion of the men and women of the Department – equipped with full protective clothing – who were assigned to the conflagration zone.

At 2:25 p.m. there was a request from Battalion Chief Tabacco for an additional strike team, which could not be immediately filled.

William Shaughnessy of Division 1 was the senior assistant chief officer on duty, and he and Assistant Chief Hickey began to establish procedures for placing units back in service with personnel recalled to duty.

The Chief ordered a limited recall five minutes later to increase staffing on the remaining apparatus in the City to a level of one officer and five firefighters on engines, and one officer and six firefighters on truck companies because of the immediate and growing fire threat to San Francisco.

Fifty-four off-duty firefighters and officers were initially recalled to duty for this backfill operation.

Chief Postel ordered recalled Capt. Michael J. McKinley to designate the Division of Training as the base for staging and transportation operations for a large-scale Department recall. Captain McKinley also acted as the public information officer for the duration of the conflagration.

The Chief also recalled Capt. Gilbert Moreno of the Bureau of Equipment (BOE) to duty. Upon arrival at the Bureau of Equipment, Capt. Moreno supervised issuance of equipment to place relief apparatus in service with recall personnel. Captain Moreno later sent two BOE staff members in a Department vehicle to the Claremont command post to support the mechanical needs of street apparatus committed to protection of that structure.

The Modified Assignment Response Signal was placed in service at 2:42 p.m., and this limited the amount of apparatus dispatched to each box alarm or incident within the City.

Mini-pumper 43, with Assistant Chief Hickey and Battalion Chief Seyler left Central Fire Alarm Station on the orders of Chief Postel at 2:50 p.m., en route to the Claremont Hotel to establish San Francisco Command.

At 2:55 p.m., Assistant Chief Shaughnessy recalled 25 additional firefighters to duty from Division 1.

Battalion Chief Tracey in Oakland special-called a hose tender at 3:15 p.m. for operations at Broadway and Ocean View Dr.

The Mayor spoke by telephone to Elihu Harris, mayor of Oakland at 3:20 p.m., and assured him that San Francisco emergency personnel were ready to assist in any way. He sent a similar message to Loni Hancock, mayor of Berkeley. The Mayor then held over all day watch police personnel, pending further calls for mutual aid.

Chief Postel ordered Hose Tenders 8 and 15 staffed at 3:22 p.m. with personnel from truck companies 8 and 15 which were placed out of service. Hose Tender 8 then responded to assist Battalion Chief Tracey and Hose Tender 15 was sent to the staging area at the Claremont Hotel.

By 3:30 p.m., Chief Postel had dispatched 13 fire-fighting vehicles and 50 firefighters to Oakland.

At 3:49 p.m., three 3,500-gallon tankers from the San Francisco Department of Public Works were dispatched by the Mayor to Oakland to provide water to firefighters in other areas of the conflagration zone where hydrants had run dry. The public works emergency command van was also dispatched.

Chief Postel established full ICS operations at CFAS at 4 p.m. with himself as incident commander. Assistant Chief Shaughnessy was designated operations officer, recalled Assistant Chief James Lynch staffed the planning officer position and recalled Battalion Chief Gary Torres became the logistics officer. Chief Postel also recalled Deputy Chief John Boscacci and Assistant Chief Dan Barden to duty as part of the general staff.

The Chief ordered the recall to duty of Battalion Chief Alberto Da Cunha, Director of Training, at 4:45 p.m., as additional staff for staging operations at the Division of Training.

Assistant chief officers Slater and Condon were recalled to duty by the Chief of the Department at 4:49 p.m., and recalled Battalion Chief James C. Ferry was detailed to Battalion 4 to replace Temporary Battalion Chief Peter Roybal who had been sent to Oakland.

Assistant Chief Condon was assigned to the Division of Training as staging officer, and coordinated the use of a Municipal Railway articulated motor coach for transport of personnel to the Claremont Hotel staging area.

Fifteen additional officers and firefighters were recalled to duty on orders of the Chief of Department from Battalion 7 at 4:55 p.m., followed a few minutes later by the recall to duty of three officers and 22 firefighters from Battalion 5. At 5:09 p.m., the Chief of Department ordered an additional battalion chief, three officers and 22 firefighters recalled to duty from Battalion 2.

At 5:15 p.m., ten additional officers and 22 more firefighters were recalled to duty on the orders of Chief Postel. Battalion Chief Thomas F. McGuire was also recalled to duty.

All San Francisco personnel recalled to duty, with the exception of command staff, were ordered to report to the staging area at the Division of Training.

The Presidio of San Francisco Fire Department dispatched one engine to Oakland at 5:24 p.m.

The northbound lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge were closed for a few minutes at 5:30 p.m. to allow mutual aid companies from the north to transit the bridge, then through the City to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

At 5:50 p.m., on-duty firefighters Joseph M. Hallisy and Ronald R. Lewin were detailed from Rescue Squad 2 to Central Fire Alarm Station to begin finance and record-keeping functions.

The Mayor asked the news media shortly after 6 o'clock to alert people in San Francisco to watch for fires in their neighborhoods because of the increased smoke and heavy ashfall.

An Oakland Fire Alarm dispatcher called Central Fire Alarm Station by telephone and requested an additional 10 strike teams at 6:15 p.m., according to the log maintained by Assistant Chief James Lynch.

This request was well beyond the capacity of the San Francisco Fire Department which had 41 engines in service at the time the first strike team responded. Ten strike teams would call for 50 engines and minimum of 200 personnel.

A task force was formed three minutes later, however, composed of 64 officers and firefighters. This was the fifth dispatch of apparatus and personnel from San Francisco to Oakland. At the same time, Chief Postel continued to backfill companies in the City that had been placed out of service because of the massive response to Oakland.

Chief Postel detailed Assistant Chief Slater to Division 2 at 6:21 p.m. to replace Assistant Chief Gary L. Musante who had been sent to Oakland with recalled personnel.

The Fire Commission president arrived at 7 p.m. to join other commissioners who had responded to Central Fire Alarm Station.

By 8:45 p.m., more than 150 Department members had been recalled to duty, of which 144 were sent to Oakland. The tenth – and last – response of personnel was dispatched at this time, composed of 1 battalion chief, 1 chief's aide, 2 officers and 8 firefighters who took with them extra radio batteries, radios and other supplies needed at the command post.

Total Department equipment sent to Oakland was 11 engine companies, 1 truck company, 2 hose tenders, 1 attack hose tender, 1 mini-pumper, 4 chief's buggies, 3 vans and 1 motor coach from the Municipal Railway.

Fifty-four on-duty officers and firefighters – about 20 percent of the on-duty staffing – were sent to Oakland in addition to 90 officers and firefighters who were recalled to duty. Forty additional personnel were placed on standby if needed to backfill units in San Francisco.

Mutual aid expenses incurred by the Department in response to the fire from October 20 to 28 included about $154,000 for the salaries of on-duty and recalled personnel, approximately $31,000 for 92 lost work days because of injuries to nine firefighters and about $23,000 for lost, damaged or consumed equipment.

Total reimbursable cost to the Department was $225,305.92.

Communications Center

Table of Contents

Return to the top of the page.