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Earthquake and Fire Operations
Central Fire Alarm station

Within seconds of the earthquake shock, electric power to the entire City and County of San Francisco failed for the first time since the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

In a video report titled, "...Back on Line, the Earthquake of October 17, 1989," Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), which supplies both electricity and natural gas to the City, said "San Francisco's power was coming from two PG&E plants Potrero and Hunters Point," at the time of the earthquake.

"The severe shaking caused Potrero Power Plant to trip off almost immediately. Soon, Hunters Point followed. Local electric distribution lines were also hard hit. Lines broke or slapped together, arcing or shorting out transformers."

At the time of the earthquake, Rescue No. 1, Engine No. 3 and Engine No. 36 were out of service at separate medical calls. All other units of the San Francisco Fire Department were available for dispatch.

Central Fire Alarm Station (CFAS) at 1003 Turk Street immediately went to generator power with the failure of PG&E electricity. Two minutes after the end of the shaking, the San Francisco Fire Department Communications Center at CFAS transmitted Box 1324 for a reported fire at 360 Sutter Street.

Sixteen seconds later, Engine Co. No. 35 was dispatched to Howard and Hawthorne streets on a report of a woman struck by a falling masonry wall, and one minute after that, Box 2241 was transmitted for a building collapse at Sixth and Bluxome streets.

The Communications Center at CFAS was besieged with telephone alarms as well as alarms from the Municipal Street Telegraph System (MSTS) which is composed of street alarm boxes and auxiliary boxes in structures which, when pulled, mechanically trip the street boxes and transmit an alarm.

The Municipal Street Telegraph System, with more than 2,000 street alarm boxes, continued to function despite damage to one circuit when liquefaction occurred around the underground conduit in the Marina District. The circuit remained in operation and the pull boxes in this area of liquefaction, as well as those in the South of Market and Inner Mission Districts, continued to function.

Telephone alarm service from private companies which receive San Francisco fire alarms at locations outside of the City was interrupted because of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company's restriction of long-distance access into the 415 area code from other parts of the United States. At this time, it is not known how many of these telephone alarms failed to reach CFAS because of the AT&T decision to restrict incoming long-distance service.

Deputy Chief of Operations Michael T. Farrell responded from Fire Department Headquarters at 260 Golden Gate Avenue and arrived at CFAS at 5:11 p.m, seven minutes after the earthquake. Chief Farrell was Acting Chief of Department in the absence of Chief Frederick F. Postel who was attending The NFPA Urban Fire Forum in Boston.

Chief Postel returned to San Francisco on the morning of October 18 aboard an emergency Air Force flight arranged by the White House Chief of Staff.

Chief Farrell was soon joined at the Communications Center by other senior staff officers.

By the time Deputy Chief Farrell arrived, the communications watch commander had already transmitted the Modified Assignment Response Signal to limit the initial dispatch of apparatus to an incident or box alarm.

After an initial assessment of the status of the Department, Deputy Chief Farrell ordered the transmission of the Emergency Duty Recall Signal to radio and television stations shortly after his arrival. This signal had the effect of recalling all members of the Department.

The San Francisco Fire Department then arranged for the use of KPIX-TV's Chopper 5 helicopter for a flyover of the City. Assistant Deputy Chief of Department John F. Boscacci had the helicopter land in the recreation field adjacent to CFAS. Assistant Deputy Chief Boscacci then flew over the City to assess damage and to determine the initial scope of the Marina District fire.

Extraordinary demands placed upon the public-switched telephone network operated by Pacific Bell caused partial loss of outgoing telephone service at CFAS after the earthquake, although there was some spotty incoming 9-1-1 service.

The Communications Center logged approximately 500 incoming telephone calls per-hour for assistance between 5:04 p.m. and midnight.

The San Francisco Fire Department internal computerized AT&T telephone switch housed at CFAS, as well as the Mayor's Emergency Telephone System (METS), a circa-1913 Kellogg manual telephone cord board located at the Hall of Justice, continued to operate without damage or interruption throughout the earthquake period.

Operations of the Fire Department were also severely hampered by overloading of the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system soon after the earthquake. This failure of the DEC computer was caused by gross overload and not by the shaking action of the earthquake.

At 5:43 p.m., the CAD system was partially shut down by supervisory personnel. Because of this shut down, all dispatches were made on Department's five-channel radio system which was already operating under severe overload conditions.

The Fire Department's five-channel radio system continued to function despite the loss of one receiver site atop a structure in the Park Merced Apartment complex which was severely shaken and severely damaged by the earthquake.

The loss of this receiver site did not significantly degrade or affect radio coverage, and the Motorola Spectra-Tac system transmitters, receivers, associated equipment, as well as the Motorola microwave system and components located within Central Radio Station at Twin Peaks, continued in full operation throughout the earthquake period, although the radio system was subject to severe traffic overload.

Department of Electricity and Telecommunications-maintained wireline and microwave systems between CFAS and Central Radio Station at Twin Peaks also continued to fully operate without interruption.

All other communications systems within the CFAS building, including the National Air Warning System (NAWAS) which connects CFAS with the California Office of Emergency Services dispatch point in Sacramento, continued to fully operate.

The severe draw upon the resources of the Fire Department caused Chief Farrell to have all medical calls transferred to the Paramedic Division of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Under normal conditions more than 50 percent of all Fire Department calls are medical responses.

There were 299 firefighters on duty when the earthquake struck, with 41 stations, 41 engines, 18 trucks, two rescue squads and one fireboat available for dispatch.

Because of the time of the earthquake, many uniformed and non-uniformed personnel of the Department who work a five-day, 40-hour week had either not yet departed or immediately returned to duty.

Within one hour of the earthquake, 310 recalled firefighters had reported for duty, which doubled the staffing of the Department. By midnight, the number of firefighters reporting for duty had risen to 651, for a total departmental strength of 950.

This staffing level was maintained until 8 a.m. on October 18, and was then reduced. Two hundred additional overtime shifts were staffed during the next seven days because of the threat of aftershocks and the increased workload.

Many members of the Department responded without notification. Others responded when word of the disaster was broadcast on radio and television. A number of Department members who were several hundred miles away on vacation responded to the Emergency Recall Duty Signal when it was broadcast on the Cable News Network (CNN).

Members who live within the Bay Area were forced to travel around the Bay to either the Golden Gate or San Mateo bridges because of the loss of the Bay Bridge. Others got rides aboard ferry boats from the East Bay and still others were given preferential boarding by airlines throughout the United States to return to duty.

These returning firefighters showed resourcefulness and ingenuity in overcoming the obstacles of a damaged transportation infrastructure.

Fire Operations - Cervantes Boulevard or return to the Table of Contents

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