Historic Presidio fire station to close

by Thomas K. Pendergast

After 93 years in service, the Presidio Fire Department (PFD) will no longer exist as such as the Presidio firehouse will be taken over by the San Francisco Fire Department, possibly this fall or winter.

Although the SFFD, Presidio Park Trust and National Park Service are still negotiating the details, at this point it looks like 15 of the 34 firefighters employed with the PFD will be hired by the SF Fire Department. Of the remaining 19 firefighters, 10 were hired as temporary firefighters, with the understanding that the positions would not be permanent, and the other nine will be looking for a new job.

At least one firefighter will likely be forced to retire early, which will reduce the amount of that pension by perhaps $800 per month due to a penalty for retiring early, according to firefighter's Union F145 President Al Duncan.

The decision on which firefighters will be joining the SFFD has yet to be made, which Duncan says contributes significantly to a lowering of moral at the firehouse.

"The atmosphere can get a little rummy at times. We found out on March 24 that they'd reached a tentative agreement," Duncan said. "It's a cutthroat environment around here. Everybody is competing against everybody because they don't know who will be hired or what will be the deciding factors.

"This has been a four-year process with feasibility studies by the park service. It really has been kind of a dark shadow over everybody's head for the last four years," he said.

The PFD handles about 1,600 calls per year, according to Duncan, involving situations like cliff rescues, brush fires and structural fires, like the one that lit up the Warming Hut cafe at Crissy Field. The department also recovers the bodies of those committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and there are many calls requiring paramedics, including vehicular accidents.

"We're the only ambulance in the City that doesn't bill people because it's your federal tax dollars paying for it," Duncan said.

San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White confirmed Duncan's numerical breakdown of how many firefighters the City is prepared to absorb.

"We're budgeted to hire 55 candidates while we're also in the midst of working out an arrangement to absorb this work force," Hayes-White said.

She said the eligible list of candidates is in the area of 5,200 people who "worked and studied for and completed the entry level examination for firefighter. Many of them are firefighters in other jurisdictions. Quite a bit of time and expense were put into this examination.

"We're not in a position to take all of (the PFD firefighters) because we want to give the others that took the exam a fair chance. We recognize the high quality of people there, but there are also high-quality people who took the exam as well."

Dana Polk, spokesperson for the Presidio Trust, confirmed the change of management at the firehouse.

"We're currently in negotiations with the city of San Francisco about the possibility of the SF Fire Department managing the Presidio fire station. If that doesn't work out, then the Trust will take over management."

Noting that 10 of the 19 firefighter positions being absorbed by the SF Fire Department were considered temporary from the start, she said, "We would like to accommodate all of them if possible."

The roots of the historic Presidio Fire Department go back more than a century. When the 1906 earthquake struck, soldiers from the Presidio helped stop fires spreading west by dynamiting houses on Van Ness Avenue to create a fire break. Around the same time, several old wooden structures in the Presidio burnt to the ground, according to the National Park Service website. Coal-burning fireplaces and flammable roofs, combined with a lack of professionally-trained firefighters at the post, made for a dangerous situation.

In 1915 the odds finally caught up with the family of the base commander, Gen. John Pershing, when coal from an unattended dining room fireplace fell on the floor and started a blaze that consumed the house and claimed the lives of Pershing's wife and three of his four children.

His father-in-law, Sen. Francis Warren of Wyoming, led a Congressional mandate for improving the fire fighting resources at the Presidio.

The Presidio Fire Station was built in 1917 and was the first U.S. Army post to house a permanent fire company with trained firefighters. In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the PFD was the first on the scene to fight fires burning in the Marina District. In 1994, the Presidio came under the management of the National Park Service (NPS) and became the only NPS fire department trained to fight both wild land and structural fires and to be staffed 24 hours a day. Paramedic services were added later.

The NPS estimates that 90 percent of the emergency calls the station gets are for paramedic units, making the Presidio Fire Department a "vital first-response station for the Presidio community."

Duncan points out that the duties at the PFD also cover the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Who would handle calls out there is a bit murky. He said they might have to rely on volunteer firefighters drawn from law enforcement or park rangers for a first response, instead of professional firefighters.

"The YMCA has youth camps up there," he explained. "They have a mammal center up there and other activities where they consistently have children staying overnight. So, if the rangers are on-call that night they've got to go home, grab their gear and then go fight the fire."