California Fire Departments

The California Fire Departments oral history 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 as her fiscal sponsor and institutional home. Sarah Wheelock passed away in 2014 before she could complete the project and, thus, she was unable to see the project through to completion as originally conceived. Oral History Center staff, led by historian/interviewer Shanna Farrell, assumed management of the project in 2016. Farrell honored the spirit of the original plan and covered the themes outlined by Wheelock, but rather than conduct interviews across the state, Farrell focused on one department, the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD). The project, then, documented the ways in which a big city department handled urban fire, climate change, diversity, technological change, and changing demographics. Further, the project explored how firefighters 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 SFFD is an example of how people make a civil service operation run and keep people safe.

The SFFD was founded in 1849 and originally 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, which coincided with the project's interviewing phase. Six people were interviewed for this phase of the project, who worked with the SFFD in different capacities and could offer multiple perspectives on the organizational, cultural, geographic, economic, and political systems of one of the oldest departments in the country. 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.

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