search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

Evolution of the Department

As has already been recited, steps for the organization of the fire department were taken early in 1850. For sixteen years the volunteer department was the most important factor in the City’s life. As quoted from the “Annals of San Francisco”
“The volunteer system need not be abandoned for a paid fire organization. Nothing could replace the loss of an institution so highly valued.”
Yet the hour of those stirring days, when men manned the pumps, had already struck. It was realized that much valuable time was lost, after an alarm had been sounded, before the volunteers could assemble and haul their apparatus to the scene of a fire. Demands had been made that a paid organization replace the volunteer. And also that certain men should be always on duty so that time would be saved in getting stated. The horses assisted in this. After much agitation a new order of things was established and the paid department went into effect on the first Monday in December 1866. The following statement appeared in the report of the Fire Commissioners as published in “Municipal Report 1866-67”:
“Its organization being completed, the Department went into active operation on the first Monday in December, 1866, since which time its workings have been repeatedly tested and are believed to have met with the approval of the public.

“The Department at present consists of six steam fire engines, eleven horse hose reels, two hook and ladder trucks, thirty horses, with the various equipments.

“The number of members to which it is entitled by the act organizing a paid Fire Department, and Order No. 743 of the Board of Supervisors, is 148, exclusive of the Board of Engineers, dividing as follows: Six enginemen, 6 firemen, 13 drivers, 5 stewards, 2 tillermen, 1 corporation yard keeper, who are permanently employed, and 115 members who do fire duty only when alarmed. These, together with four men employed by the Board of Supervisors in the corporation yard, one superintendent of steamers, assistant superintendent, hydrantman, and drayman, constitute the entire force of the Fire Department.”

It will be noted that 115 men, while ostensibly members of the Department, were known as “call” men. They worked at their daily avocations, but responded to alarms. The force was sufficiently manned with fully paid men, who were always on duty, who could get the apparatus to the fires, but it needed the assistance of the “call” men to do firemen’s duty once the apparatus had arrived at the scene of the action. In the year 1900 this was again changed. The call men were done away with and the entire Department was placed on full pay and their entire time required for fire duty.

The march of events was already forecasting even greater changes. Motor-driven apparatus was being talked of. In the first few years of this century Fire Chief Sullivan was supplied with an automobile to take him to fires in the place of his fire buggy. But it was not until 1918 that the Fire Department as it is now organized came into being.

What is known as the two-platoon system was installed in that year. The watches were changed from the twenty-four-hour period with one day off in five for the men, to the twelve-hour period with one day off in six. The horse was being gradually retired and with the installation of the system it was designed that all apparatus should thereafter be motor driven.

Under the old system, prior to the two platoon, there were 48 engine companies, 12 truck companies, 12 chemical engines and 1 water tower.

With the system as it began under the two platoon, there were 41 engine companies, 14 truck companies, 13 chemical engines, 2 water towers and 2 fireboats. To this has also been added the high-pressure system.

Municipal Record
City and County of San Francisco
October 1925