The world of firefighting is much more than masked people in uniforms running into burning buildings and rescuing scared cats from trees. While the bravery of firefighters can’t be overestimated, they also work in a complex system that requires constant training and education, a cohesive partnership with local government, extensive procedures and protocols, managerial oversight, effective communication within departments and to the public, acute familiarity with the local and regional environment, and a whole lot of administrative work. The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is a shining example of how people make a civil service operation run and keep people safe. All of these elements, as well as the historic and cultural aspects of the department, are why we chose it as our focus for our California Fire Departments Oral History Project.
The project was originally conceived by Sarah Wheelock, an independent researcher. She wanted to explore several major thematic areas of firefighting in California and she worked with the Oral History Center to do just that. With great sadness we learned that Sarah passed away in 2014 and thus she was unable to see the project through to completion. Taking over the project in 2016, I wanted to honor her original plan and cover the themes that she had outlined. So, I decided to embark on interviews within one department – the SFFD – to document the ways in which they have handled urban fire, climate change, diversity, technological change, and changing demographics.
The SFFD was founded in 1849 and was run by volunteers. It became a paid department, officially integrated into city government, in 1866. The 150th anniversary of the paid department was in 2016, when I was conducting interviews. Given my budget for the project, I was able to interview six people who worked with the SFFD in different capacities. I wanted to include multiple perspectives to understand the organizational, cultural, geographic, economic, and political systems of one of the oldest departments in the country.
The individuals who I interviewed were able to illustrate many of the themes that I wanted to document, and much more. Among the six people I interviewed were Chief Robert Demmons (the first and only African American chief of the SFFD who instrumental in integrating more more women and people of color into the SFFD), Bill Koenig (longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Jim Lee (also a longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Steve Nakajo (member of the SFFD Fire Commission), Lt. Anne Young (one of the first females hired), and Jonathan Baxter (longtime paramedic and current Public Information Officer).
These interviews work in concert to illustrate day-to-day operations in the stations, administrative duties, how the city of San Francisco and the department work together, the relationship between paramedics and the department, training, equipment, fire science school, the role of unions, the challenges and triumphs of integrating the departments, the public perception of the department, the role of innovation and changing technology, cultural changes in the department, challenges in fire safety particular to the geography of San Francisco, and the hopes for the future of the SFFD.
It is with great excitement that we present the California / San Francisco Fire Departments Oral History Project. I want to give a special thanks to all of the narrators for sharing their stories with me and helping me to document one of the most historically significant fire departments in our country.
This project is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Wheelock. Her California Firefighter oral histories from the 2000s will be released in early 2018.