| December 2012
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By Tim Innes
|Like all San Francisco firefighters, the crew at Station 24 on Hoffman Avenue, which includes (left to right) Tim Farmer, Nick Holl, Dave Lester, and Privado Gumabay, works around the clock to maintain equipment, teach safety, and reduce response time to fires and other emergencies. Photo by Pamela Gerard|
Capt. Jim O’Connell gives a tour of Truck 11, which is equipped with GPS and a computer used to talk with Dispatch. Photo by Pamela Gerard
With its steep hills, narrow streets, balloon-frame houses, gusty winds, and tangles of overhead wires, Noe Valley might be considered a lousy place to be a firefighter.
Far from it. Judging by the high morale and low turnover at the neighborhood’s two firehouses—Station 11 on 26th Street near Church, and Station 24 at Hoffman Avenue and Alvarado Street—the men and women assigned to the local turf welcome the challenges.
Built in 1958, the 26th Street station is home to Truck 11, an aerial-ladder rig with a crew of five. It also sports Engine 11, a pumper with a crew of four; a rescue captain; and the Battalion 6 chief.
The average tenure of the crew is about 15 years, according to Capt. Jim O’Connell of Truck 11. “We have a wide range of experience, from rookies to veterans,” said O’Connell, 41. “But there are very few with less than 10 years at the station.”
Exceptions include O’Connell himself, a 17-year department veteran who transferred in February from Station 16 in the Marina.
“There’s really small turnover,” said Lt. Dave Murray of Engine 11. “I think there’s been only one vacancy [here] in the last year out of 40 assigned.”
Not all stations are blessed with such popularity. Some firefighters may transfer half a dozen times before they feel at home. But that’s not the case in Noe Valley.
Station 24 up on Hoffman also has a veteran crew. On the day the Voice visited, Engine 24 was commanded by Lt. Tim Farmer, a 20-year SFFD veteran. Two of the crew members—firefighter-paramedic Nick Holl and firefighter Dave Lester—each had 16 years under their belt. Of them, Lester had been at the station the longest—eight years.
“I love the neighborhood,” said Holl. “It’s like [Main Street] in Disneyland. The buildings are beautiful. People take good care of their property.
“See that place over there?” he asked, pointing at a Victorian cottage across from the station. “I’d love a house like that, but I can’t afford it,” said Holl, who lives in San Mateo.
The 98-year-old firehouse at 100 Hoffman Ave., housing Engine 24, was designed by John Reid Jr. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Fire-Engine Red and Burgundy
Built in 1914 and enlarged in 1997, Station 24 houses two reserve pumpers in addition to Engine 24. Like other rigs that joined the force in 2006—the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire—it is painted a burgundy shade rather than traditional fire-engine red.
Stations 11 and 24, along with Station 7 in the Mission, Station 32 in Bernal Heights, and Station 26 in Diamond Heights, are all assigned to Battalion 6. Their primary area of responsibility stretches from the eastern slope of Twin Peaks to the Mission District and Bernal Heights and from Eureka Valley to Diamond Heights. They may also be dispatched to fires farther afield, like the early-morning, four-alarm blaze that destroyed several West Portal businesses on Oct. 12.
The firefighters work 24-hour shifts, starting at 8 a.m., followed by 48 hours off. Mornings begin with the testing and cleaning of equipment, followed by training or inspections of schools, nursing homes, convalescent centers, and apartment buildings.
“I’ve been inside Alvarado School so many times I could probably get around the halls blindfolded,” said Engine 24’s Holl.
That familiarity could save lives in the event of a fire, when thick, black smoke could reduce visibility to zero.
Wires and Ladders Don’t Mix
Crews often drive around the neighborhood to get the lay of the land, locate and test hydrants, and familiarize themselves with peculiarities, such as Noe Valley’s many dead-end streets and stairways.
“All the overhead wires make Noe Valley one of the most difficult places in the city for aerial ladders,” said Truck 11’s O’Connell. “If we can’t get under the wires, we have to use a 50-foot ladder, which takes six men to put up.”
Firefighters also look for hazards. They are particularly wary of downslope structures, which may have several stories below grade level that can’t be seen from the street. It was in just such a home on Berkeley Way that two veteran firefighters from Station 26 lost their lives in June 2011.
Trips often include stops at the Diamond Heights Safeway for groceries. All firefighters carry radios, so they can respond immediately in the event of a call while they’re away from the rig. A computer terminal in each cab keeps dispatchers on Turk Street informed of their status—e.g., “In Quarters,” “En Route,” or “On Scene”—and GPS devices pinpoint their location.
It’s Okay to Knock
Station routine is governed by the daily duty roster, which designates cooking chores and day and night watches. The watches monitor communications and answer the phone and doorbell. More than once has someone come to the door in the middle of the night to report an emergency, said firefighter Privado Gumabay, who’s been at Station 24 for 41/2 years.
Everyone pulls cooking duty, although officers are sometimes spared having to clean up the kitchen. The designated cook is responsible for planning and preparing lunch and dinner; everyone chips in to buy groceries. A recent lunch at Station 24 featured pulled-pork sandwiches, coleslaw, warm-from-the-oven peanut butter cookies and fresh French roast coffee. The 1997 remodel gave the station a spacious kitchen that would be the envy of any home chef.
“Having officers help plan, shop for, and cook meals is a long-standing tradition,” said Capt. O’Connell. “It’s all about teamwork.”
Afternoons feature more training, sometimes at the department’s seven-story tower at 19th and Folsom streets or at the fire academy on Treasure Island. Regardless of their assignment, all firefighters are trained as pump and aerial-ladder operators and as emergency medical technicians. Specialized training might include trench-rescue procedures.
“We don’t fight fires every day. It can be a month or two between fires. So we train to maintain our skills,” said Engine 24’s Holl.
Really Slow or ‘Really Crazy’
“Some days it’s really slow, some days it’s really crazy,” said Murray, a fourth-generation firefighter who was a paramedic in Oakland before joining Engine 11 eight years ago.
One of the crazy days was Oct. 12, when Engine 11 was dispatched to a fire in the Mission at 1:54 a.m. No sooner had they put out the fire, rolled up their hoses, and returned to the station than they were dispatched to the West Portal fire.
The following Tuesday-Wednesday shift was busy as well, with the station log showing seven 911 calls and a fire at 2:30 a.m.
The vast majority of 911 calls involve medical emergencies, said Murray. Department protocol calls for both an engine and an ambulance to be dispatched. Because they’re located in every neighborhood, engine companies are often closer than the nearest available ambulance and are usually the first to arrive. Firefighter-paramedics can quickly assess the victim’s condition and administer CPR or apply pressure to wounds until an ambulance arrives. Friday nights are especially busy.
When not on calls or in training, firefighters can work out on exercise equipment, do laundry, play ping-pong and pool, or watch television. After 9 p.m., everyone except the night watch is free to get some shuteye in the upstairs dormitory. Officers each have small quarters that double as offices and bedrooms.
Seven Women on Staff
Aside from separate lockers and shower rooms, male and female firefighters share facilities. Station 11 has five women assigned, including a lieutenant and a firefighter-paramedic. At Station 24, there are 16 men and two women, including a firefighter paramedic.
Murray’s Engine 11 company includes two women—driver Dana Pompeo, a 16-year SFFD veteran, and firefighter-paramedic Tracy O’Keeffe, a 14-year veteran.
“I was attending City College and unsure of what I wanted to do,” said Pompeo, of Pacifica. “There was a job fair on campus and the Fire Department had a table. There was a big push to recruit women. I had not really thought about being a firefighter, but it’s been good.”
While O’Keeffe lives in Noe Valley and O’Connell and Lester live elsewhere in the city, many firefighters live farther away. Murray, for example, commutes from Auburn in the Sierra foothills.
Still, they say they feel a kinship with the community, particularly with the school groups that tour the stations.
“Visiting the firehouse must be part of the curriculum,” joked Engine 24’s Holl. “But seriously, it gives us a chance to talk about safety. And the little ones love to climb up in the cab and ring the bell.”
Firefighters also prepare food for community events, run a holiday toy program, and donate blood three times a year. “The guys also grew mustaches to raise funds for the burn center,” recalled Murray. “And firefighters and their spouses often socialize outside of work, including taking a trip to San Diego together.”
While firehouses no longer have Dalmatians, which were said to have a calming effect on the horses that once pulled firefighting equipment, some things haven’t changed. Firefighters still slide down shiny brass poles from their sleeping quarters. And they still respond to calls to rescue kittens in trees. n
Be Safe—Protect Yourself from Fire
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benjamin Franklin, best known today as a Founding Father, was also founder of Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company, the world’s first fire department. Were he alive today, his Poor Richard’s Almanack and blog might contain these tips on keeping you and your family safe from fire:
¥ Don’t overload circuits, and avoid extension cords when possible. If you must use them, do not place cords and wires under rugs or tack them to walls. If a cord or appliance sputters, sparks, or emits an unusual smell, unplug it.
¥ Never place portable space heaters near flammable materials, such as furniture, bedding, and drapes.
¥ Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children. Store them up high, preferably in a locked cabinet.
¥ Place candles in non-tip candleholders before you light them and be sure to extinguish them before leaving the house or going to bed.
¥ Never smoke in bed or leave burning cigarettes unattended.
¥ Don’t leave cooking food unattended on the stove or in the oven. If you must leave the kitchen temporarily, set a timer.
¥ Keep the stove and oven clean and free of grease. In the event of a fire, put a lid over the flames.
¥ Make sure the fireplace is equipped with a sturdy metal or glass screen. Have the chimney checked before each heating season and make repairs as necessary.
¥ Never empty smoldering coals or ashes into a trash can.
¥ Prepare an escape plan for every room of your home and have the whole family practice getting out. Select a place where everyone can gather after escaping the house.
¥ Be sure there are smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on each floor of the house. Replace the batteries annually.
¥ If you use a natural Christmas tree, place it at least three feet from fireplaces, furnaces, and other heat sources; water the tree regularly; and keep lit candles away from the tree or other decorations.
¥ Keep trees no longer than four weeks and dispose of them properly.
More information about fire prevention can be found at http://www.sf-fire.org/index and http://www.usfa.fema.gov/citizens/home_fire_prev.
Fire Department at a Glance
Established: Dec. 3, 1866
Chief: Joanne Hayes-White
FY 2012 Budget: $300 million
Annual calls: 73,000
Personnel: 1,350 firefighters and EMTs
Engine Companies: 42
Truck Companies: 19
Rescue squads: 2
At a Sept. 19 apartment fire on Noe Street (see Voice November 2012 issue), trucks with aerial ladders had to steer clear of utility wires to safely reach the building’s upper floors. Narrow hilly streets are also a hazard in Noe Valley. Photo by Pamela Gerard