San Francisco
Communications Center

The San Francisco Fire Department Communications Center received dozens of inquisitive telephone calls concerning the fire in the Oakland hills from worried San Francisco citizens throughout the late morning.

At first, the calls weren't too frequent, but the volume began to slowly rise at about the time the strike teams were dispatched to Oakland at 12:31 p.m. There were two lieutenants and three firefighters on duty at the Communications Center at the time.

Shortly after Lt. McGreevy spoke with Chief Postel, who authorized the response of the strike teams, Communications Center personnel began to page city officials, including the Mayor. They also paged the administrative staff of the Department, including the deputy chiefs and Assistant Chief Hickey who is the Department's Mutual Aid Coordinator.

At about 1 p.m., the volume of telephone calls jumped as winds blew the vast smoke and ash cloud over San Francisco. One telephone operator was immediately recalled because, by 2 p.m., more than 100 calls per hour were coming into the Communications Center. This high call volume continued until sunset.

Lieutenant McGreevy placed Control 1 of the Department's five- channel repeated radio system out of service for the exclusive use of the strike teams, and assigned Firefighter James Thompson to that channel. He also ordered the Fire Mutual Aid radio staffed by Firefighter Leal K. Ugrin. The state OES radio was monitored by other Communications Center personnel.

As operations in Oakland expanded, one simplex radio channel -- Control 4-D -- was placed out of service for fireground operation within the conflagration zone. Operations were later moved to Control 5-D by the Communications Center watch commander.

The Mayor, the Chief of Department, other city officials and members of the Department's administration who responded to Central Fire Alarm Station operated from a conference room near the dispatch positions.

By 3:15 p.m., recalled switchboard operator Cassie Matheson had gathered the telephone numbers of agencies in the East Bay, such as the Red Cross and the police departments, because so many calls of inquiry came from East Bay residents.

Battalion Chief Gary Torres said, "We began to get many calls from people in Berkeley who were near the fire and wanted to know what to do. Many of them were frightened. We didn't know exactly what was going on over there, so our dispatchers told them that if they were near the fire to evacuate as soon as possible. Also, depending upon their proximity to the fire -- within a mile or so -- we told them to water their roofs and clear debris from around their homes. If they had any doubts, we told them to leave."

Commercial telephone service to the East Bay became uncertain because of overload, and at times calls would not go through to Oakland Fire Alarm. Communications Center personnel tested the BART Transbay telephone system which connects Central Fire Alarm Station to Oakland Fire Alarm.

This particular circuit runs the length of the BART Transbay tunnel under San Francisco Bay, where there is a series of jacks along the trackway. It was designed to allow firefighters to speak by plug-in telephone to their respective communications centers from anywhere within the tunnel. However, it functioned successfully as a backup point- to-point telephone link between the two fire alarm stations during the conflagration.

The San Francisco Fire Department also serves as the Region II dispatch point for OES apparatus during the winter months, and rotates that duty with Santa Rosa CDF.

Leaders of some strike teams could not find their assembly points, and so called the San Francisco Communications Center on the telephone to ask for directions and instructions, even though Santa Rosa was, at this time, the dispatch point.

Officers of other OES units already in East Bay called the San Francisco Fire Department by telephone to ask directions to base camps or assembly points within the conflagration zone.

At 4:30 p.m., Battalion Chief Torres spoke with the Oakland fire incident commander, Assistant Chief John Baker. "He told me, `The fire is completely out of control, there are no fire lines yet.' He also said he didn't know where the mutual aid units were within the conflagration zone."

There were, at this time, numerous dispatches within San Francisco, and Communications Center personnel began a series of directed cover-in calls to keep apparatus strategically located within the City.

At 7:45 p.m., Battalion Chief Roybal at the Claremont Hotel told the Control 1 dispatcher that apparatus were running out of fuel. Dispatch personnel prepared to special-call Diesel Fuel 1 to Oakland. However, an Oakland fuel tanker soon arrived and the special call was not necessary.

A dispatcher monitoring the Fire Mutual Aid frequency at 9:48 p.m. heard an unidentified strike team leader say: "San Francisco firefighters are in a very dangerous position behind the Claremont." This information was relayed to Assistant Chief Hickey, who said he was aware of the situation.

The Fire Mutual Aid frequency, (154.280 Mhz) known as "Fire White," was not useable for communications with Oakland Fire Alarm during the conflagration because of gross overload. San Francisco personnel equipped with that channel within the conflagration zone did not use it for fireground operations because of the same overload conditions.

At midnight, three additional recalled communications personnel reported for duty.

The San Francisco Fire Department responded to 172 other alarms on October 20, of which 12 were fires. The balance of the responses were medical and first-aid calls, smoke scares from the conflagration, investigations and street box alarms. Thirty-eight street telegraph boxes were transmitted because of extreme smoke conditions from the Oakland conflagration.

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