September 13, 1906
San Francisco's fire department has long been recognized as one of the most efficient in the United States. It deserves the reputation it has borne by reason of the discipline, character of the men who are in the service and the superiority of its apparatus. Handicapped as the Department has been by reason of the fact that ninety percent of the buildings of San Francisco were frame and were constructed on hilly territory, with the winds of the Pacific Ocean sweeping over the city at all hours, it has been able to cope with all conflagrations up to the one of the memorial 18th of April, and would have prevented the tremendous fire that swept over so many acres at that time had it not been hampered by the crippled water supply. The earthquake that preceded the fire was unexpected, and as a result of its violence water piping was twisted and broken. The supply of water that had that had proven so effective in times past was cut off and the Department was forced to use dynamite as a means of stopping the fire.
Our Department cannot be held responsible for the vast devastation of property occasioned by that conflagration. Our men battled with the flames until exhausted and it is due to their heroic and splendid efforts that so great a portion of our beautiful city was saved from destruction.
The story of the great earthquake and fire has been told and retold and will ever be a subject of discussion, but as I have been appealed to give my views on the conflagration I will do so from the standpoint of a fireman.
The tremblor having played havoc with our entire fire alarm system, not an alarm bell rang to warn the department that fires were raging all over the city. In truth there was no need of bells that morning.
In the vicinity of every fire house buildings were being consumed by the flames and every effort was made to extinguish the fires. Hydrant after hydrant was tested and not a drop of water was to be found. Our system was paralyzed and we were practically helpless. This did not deter us from our duty. In the Western Addition were two large fires within a radius of two blocks. After a long search a hydrant was found emitting water four blocks away from the scene of the conflagration, an then began the task of pumping water a distance of 3000 feet. This was done by stationing an engine at the hydrant which pumped through 800 feet of hose; here another engine forced the water through another 800 feet, and so on until three engines in tandem were busily engaged. Both fires were extinguished by this means.
All the apparatus was then ordered to the southern part of the city to lend assistance, as dense volumes of smoke in that direction denoted that the fire had reached great headway and reinforcements were needed to stem the fire. Not a drop of water was to be had from the hydrants and the engines were forced to pump from the sewers. At the water front all the fire boats were busily striving to check the incipient blazes that threatened to destroy valuable shipping and wharfage property.
How the fire spread to all sections of the city is an old story. Fire proof structures were gutted and millions of dollars of property destroyed. And yet, had we possessed an adequate water supply I am positive our Department would have had every fire under control before night.
Dynamite was used in great quantity to subdue the flames that swept the city. In the hands of competent persons the explosive is a valuable auxiliary in fighting fire when other means fail. Our Department gained valuable experience in the handling of dynamite, and I trust that other departments may profit from our observations. In the first place dynamite should be stored in an isolated spot and under the control of the United States Army. It should never be brought into use until ordered by the Chief of the fire department, and then it should be handled by trained men, preferably soldiers, commanded by competent officers.
Great harm was done during the first days of the fire by the indiscriminate use of black powder, it developed that when black powder was exploded it threw off a combustion that ignited all woodwork with which it came in contact, thus starting additional fires. Giant powder, made of nitroglycerine was used with the same results. On the third day of the conflagration 75 percent dynamite, in stick form, was used with splendid results as there was no combustion and the buildings were leveled without danger. I would, therefore, recommend the use of stick dynamite, gun cotton, or other true high-explosives that throw off no combustion, as the only means of checking a tremendous fire when water is not obtainable, as it levels a building to where you can deliver water to control the flames of such buildings of frame or brick of ordinary construction, containing wooden floor joists and wooden dividing partitions. I would not recommend dynamite to level buildings of "Class A" construction of which are of the skeleton type, with steel frame an floors riveted at all junction points, for the reason that it would take an enormous quantity to level a building of that construction.
I would further recommend that when dynamite is used that it should be exploded with electricity, as with fuse systems there is danger of not exploding when expected.
In regard to the future water supply for fire protection here, my plan would be to build reinforced concrete cisterns, 1,000 to 1,500 feet apart, each with a quantity of 100,000 gallons. These should be distributed in various sections of the city to be used in the event of the usual water system being cut off or disabled from any cause whatsoever. These cisterns necessarily would have to be filled with fresh water, for the reason that our engines are not suitable for pumping saltwater unless there is fresh water to feed their boilers.
I am in favor of wide streets an I earnestly hope that in the rebuilding of the city, the proper authorities will recall the fact that it was the unusual width of several of our streets that aided most materially in checking the spread of the conflagration at several points.
In the construction of future buildings of San Francisco, one of the most important appurtenances thereto to be considered are those of stand pipes. Under ordinary circumstances every building four stories or more in height must be equipped with stand pipes in front. On every floor there must be valves that will permit firemen to connect their hose thus making it unnecessary for them to pull heavy lines of hose up the ladders. My idea is to have stand pipes descend into the ground and be connected with [the] high pressure main in the vicinity of the building. If this is adopted it will be of great service to the fire department.
As to our engines, they cannot be made heavier. We are improving them each year, but also must bear in mind that if the improvement will bring the engine over the seven-ton mark, it is impracticable for use in this city because of the many hills. It is therefore absolutely necessary to construct high pressure pumping stations.
Chemical engines are of great service to any fire department. It has been proved that sixty percent of the fires are extinguished by Chemical engines, and I look upon them as valuable auxiliaries.
The discipline of the San Francisco Fire Department could not be improved. The men are athletic and intelligent and are trained to their perilous work. The two drill towers that are used by the Department have been invaluable to the Department. In my opinion the drill tower is the right hand of any fire department. It is there that men are taught how to handle themselves at great height; How to use the life nets, and the hundred and the hundred and one other things that a fireman must learn by actual experience to make him a valuable acquisition to the Department. The drill tower dispels nervousness and teaches a fireman that confidence is absolutely necessary in his dangerous calling.
I cannot close this paper without paying a just tribute to Dennis T. Sullivan, late Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Fire Department. He was the ideal fireman, he was the heart and soul in his work, and it is due to his energy that the Department was brought to such a high state of development. He was recognized throughout the world as a great fireman, and he deserved the great reputation that he bore. His constant thought was the welfare of his men and the improvement of the service. His whole idea was to keep the Department ahead of any in the country, and that he succeeded is attested by all. He possessed executive ability in the highest degree. He was a kindly man and a just man. He was beloved by every man in the Department, and his loss is irreparable. He set a high standard, and as Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, I will strive to follow his great example in conducting the affairs of what I earnestly believe to be one of the greatest fire departments in the world.
Patrick H. Shaughnessy
Return to 1906 Earthquake and Fire Report.