San Francisco Mutual Aid Response

The San Francisco Fire Department's involvement began at 12:29 p.m., Sunday, October 20, 1991, with a telephone call from Oakland Fire Alarm which requested the dispatch of two strike teams to Hiller Dr. and Tunnel Rd. in Oakland because of the conflagration then burning through the Oakland hills.

Oakland Battalion 2 ordered an Oakland Fire Alarm dispatcher to request 10 engines from the San Francisco Fire Department, in the form of two strike teams at 12:23 p.m., according to stenographic transcripts of that department's radio transmissions. That request was received by telephone six minutes later in San Francisco.

At the time of the Oakland battalion chief's order, the conflagration had jumped state Highway 24 -- Oakland firefighters were trapped within the fire zone in the 7000 block of Marlborough Terrace, Oakland Battalion Chief James Riley had been killed -- and Oakland engines were believed lost or trapped within the conflagration zone.

Water pressure had also failed at some places, and at least 50 houses were burning along Golden Gate Ave., and another 15 houses were in flames in the area of Contra Costa Lane and Buena Vista in the Oakland hills.

Fire was rolling out of the hills in some places, according to eyewitnesses. Oakland Police Sergeant Paul S. Brock said that around 11:45 a.m., "...Hiller Dr. just exploded -- It was all over. Hiller Dr. instantly vaporized, and a big sheet of fire rolled over the area like a wave."

When the telephone call for assistance came, the Department had 41 engines, 18 trucks, two rescue squads and a fire boat in service, with a staff of 296 on duty. Two of those truck companies were out of service on calls.

Lieutenant John F. McGreevy, watch commander at the Communications Center located within the San Francisco Central Fire Alarm Station, (CFAS) immediately set up Box 2249 -- the East Bay mutual aid box -- in the computer-aided dispatch system to send the two requested strike teams to Oakland.

Moments later, Lt. McGreevy notified Frederick F. Postel, the Chief of Department, who gave immediate approval for the response.

At 12:31 p.m., less than 90 seconds after the request, the box was transmitted and the apparatus to form the first strike team was dispatched to rendezvous at Fifth and Bryant streets near an on ramp to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The initial assignment for Strike Team 1 called for San Francisco Engine Companies 1, 3, 8, 29, 36 and Battalion 3. All units assembled at Fifth and Bryant streets. Battalion Chief Tracey asked for a California Highway Patrol escort, but the Communications Center personnel told him that the CHP could not provide an estimated time of arrival for its units. Battalion Chief Tracey then made the decision to proceed to Hiller Dr. and Tunnel Rd. without an escort.

Strike Team 2 composed of Engine Companies 6, 7, 13, 17, 25 and Battalion 9 also assembled at Fifth and Bryant streets at 12:40 p.m. Temporary Lt. George Nelson of the Technical Services Video Unit accompanied Strike Team 2. The California Highway Patrol escorted the second strike team across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Each engine was staffed with one officer and three firefighters.

Requests for assistance from San Francisco by the City of Oakland Office of Fire Services are governed by the "State of California Mutual Aid Plan," and the "Bay Area Inter-County Mutual Aid Plan" last updated in 1989. The latter plan calls for a strike team to be dispatched to any of the signatories, "...unless location conditions dictate otherwise." The response is to be "...on a short-term basis (6 to 8 hours), until a state OES strike team can reach the scene."

There is, in addition, the "Oakland Hills Fire Disaster Plan" (August 1981, Section III-3), which states: "Mutual aid resources, with the exception of San Francisco equipment, will initially be directed to a staging area. San Francisco apparatus will be placed in vacant Oakland fire stations and used in areas where structural fires are anticipated."

In this case however, San Francisco engines were initially directed to stage at Hiller Dr. and Tunnel Rd.

The fire in Oakland, at the time of the mutual aid dispatch, had become a true conflagration, with firestorm-like conditions reported, notably in the Hiller Highlands area.

In the 1946 publication "Fire and the Air War," the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) noted the difference between a firestorm and a conflagration. A firestorm, it reported, is marked by a column of burning gases and hot air rising over a fire, with a commensurate movement of air drawn toward the center. Destruction within the area of a firestorm is absolute.

In the description of the firestorm and conflagration which swept Hamburg during World War II, the NFPA report said: "The tremendous hurricane of fire caused the air to be drawn toward the fire from all directions with such a terrific velocity that it tore trees apart, and prevented firemen from coming close enough to be within range of hose streams."

"The chief characteristic of the conflagration was the presence of a firefront, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward preceded by a turbid mass of pre-heated vapors. The progress and destructive features of the conflagration were therefore much greater than those of the firestorm, for in the conflagration the fire continued to spread until it could reach no more combustible material."

Central Fire Alarm Operations
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