A Legacy of Volunteer Fire Protection
The Blitz and London AFS
The Fire Reserve is Established
FR During World War II

Serving the City for 72 Years
The Fire Reserve Today
Training the Next Generation
SFFD Fire Reserve: A Continuing Tradition of Service


  A Legacy of Volunteer Fire Protection
The history of the City of San Francisco is indelibly linked with fire and the fire service. From 1849 to 1851, San Francisco suffered six major conflagrations. In the aftermath of these "great fires," the citizens of San Francisco formed the first volunteer fire companies to protect the City.

However, as the City continued to grow, it soon became clear that a professional fire department was needed. Thus, in December 1866 the City established the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), ending the City's dependence on volunteer firefighters.


  Dedication ceremony in Washington Square Park for bronze statue, by sculptor Haig Patigian, commemorating the Volunteer Fire Department of 1849 - 1866 (SF Public Library).  

  The Blitz and the Auxiliary Firefighting Services
However, 75 years later in 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of World War II saw the return of direct citizen involvement in the City's protection and civil defense with the establishment of the San Francisco Fire Auxiliary Reserve.

Only a year earlier, the world had watched in horror as Nazi Germany unleashed the "Blitz," a nine-month-long bombing campaign of London and the United Kingdom. London alone suffered 57 straight nights of heavy bombing. The Blitz ultimately resulted in 43,000 civilian deaths and more than a million destroyed or damaged homes. Losses would have been worse if not for the service and dedication of the Auxiliary Firefighting Service ("AFS") of London and other UK cities who tirelessly fought the onslaught of fires amidst the non-stop bombing.

As part of their innovative approach to firefighting, the Fire Service utilized fire pumps that could be towed to fires by vehicles via a  quick-hitching device designed by a London taxi driver. Auxiliary firemen rode to fires in taxis making it possible to get to incidents with limited personnel and equipment.

Thanks in part to the Auxiliary Firefighters' resolve, London and the UK survived the Blitz, important national landmarks such as St. Paul's Cathedral remained standing, and most significantly the British spirit remained unbroken.



(a) The London Docks on fire; (b) a recruiting poster for the Auxiliary Firefighting Services (AFS) of London; (c) London AFS leading hose (London Fire Journal)


The Fire Reserve Is Established
Recognizing the need for a resource like the London AFS to call upon, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved Section 7.11 of the Administrative Code establishing the Fire Auxiliary Reserve in late 1941. The Fire Reserve's role was designed to augment and support the SFFD and was "assigned the duty of preparing against the perils to life and property that may be expected to result from enemy attack or sabotage or from any emergency that may threaten lives and property." Similar Fire Auxiliary Reserve programs were setup in other cities nationwide including Sacramento (CA), Stockton (CA), Columbus (OH), Wichita (KS), Cambridge (MA), and New York City.


SFNews       drill

  (a) Feature story on the newly formed Fire Reserve (FR) shortly after the U.S. entry into WWII (March 27, 1942, San Francisco News); (b)  SFFD FR demonstrating high pressure hose handling at the Civic Center  under the direction of Chief Charles Brennan (July 1, 1942,  San Francisco Call-Bulletin, SF Public Library); (c)  Poster for the New York City Fire Department encouraging volunteers to join the fire department auxiliary corps (circa 1941-1943,  NYC War Services, Library of Congress). 


The Fire Reserve During World War II
Under the direction of the SFFD and leadership of Fire Captain William F. Murray (who later became Chief of the SFFD from 1956 to 1971), the Fire Reserve numbered 10,000 volunteers who came from all walks of life. Additionally, the Fire Reserve operated in loose cooperation with the firefighting arm of the Civil Defense Auxiliary. Fifty-two auxiliary fire stations were positioned throughout the City. These stations were typically one-story structures housing a 500 gallon per minute pumping unit with hose. The pumps were mounted on a small one ton truck or mobile trailer. In the event of a disastrous fire, Yellow Cab taxis were equipped with hitches and were expected to haul men and equipment to the incident.


cab        1943_drill

  (a) (l-r) FR Chief  George Schaeffer, Civilian Defense Chief J.H. Helms, Acting SFFD Chief A.T. Sullivan, and Yellow Cab Co. chairman J.A. Baldi discuss using taxis to haul FR auxiliary pumps (February 9, 1943, San Francisco Call-Bulletin, SF Public Library); (b) FR running hose from a FR auxiliary pump (October 7, 1943, San Francisco News, SF Public Library).


Fire Reservists Have Served the City for 72 Years
As WWII progressed, Fire Reserve manpower leveled off to about 5,600 volunteers. Drills were held several times a week, and Fire Reserve companies often competed for trophies in Hose and Ladder Drills. With the conclusion of WWII, the Fire Reserve was deactivated in 1946. However, with the entry of the United States into the Korean War coupled with the increasing tension of the Cold War, there was a renewed need for trained volunteers. Consequently, the Fire Reserve was reactivated in 1951 to aid the SFFD at large-scale incidents including those resulting from a possible nuclear attack. Many experts, including the National Fire Protection Agency, anticipated that multiple fires, conflagrations, and/or firestorms would occur as a result of the nuclear detonations, likely overwhelming the resources of the regular department alone.

Since then, the Fire Reserve has been a continuous presence in San Francisco, providing support at greater-alarm incidents. On October 17, 1989, over fifteen members of the Fire Reserve responded to the Loma Prieta earthquake emergency and participated in the extinguishment of the Marina Fire.

As in the beginning, Fire Reservists have always volunteered their service and time without any financial compensation.



(a) "I'm exceedingly proud of our Fire Reserve whose devotion to civic duty must stand as a model for all other volunteer forces to emulate" (Chief William F. Murray, November 4, 1961, San Francisco Call-Bulletin); (b) Marina District caused by the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (USGS).


The Fire Reserve Today
Currently, there are approximately 30 members of the Fire Reserve. Fire Reservists train and drill every Thursday evening with particular emphasis on basic fire suppression, search and rescue, and BLS emergency medical skills. All Fire Reservists are certified EMTs, and many are also paramedics.

At full strength, the Fire Reserve provides the SFFD with the resource equivalent of 10 additional engine crews.

The Fire Reserve regularly trains with a variety of specialized SFFD equipment and apparatus including the Mobile Air Unit, the fire boats, and 5-inch portable hydrant system.

The SFFD Division of Training provides technical oversight, direction, and guidance so that Fire Reservists are proficient in current SFFD operating procedures.


    SFFD FR profile in the San Francisco Chronicle (December 12, 2003)  

Training the Next Generation
n added benefit of the Fire Reserve program has been to provide generations of San Franciscans with an opportunity to learn about and work directly with the SFFD. Because of the unique training experience garnered from working with a large metropolitan fire department, the Fire Reserve has long been a gateway to a career in the professional fire service.

Joining in 1941, Keith Calden was one of the earliest members of the Fire Reserve. Building on  his experience with the Fire Reserve, Calden became a firefighter with the SFFD, ultimately rising to the rank of Chief of the Department in 1971.



  (a) Eighty auxiliary firemen of Engine Co. No. 46 equipped with gasmasks (June 5, 1942, San Francisco News, SF Public Library); (b) SFFD Fire Reserve 2002 (Michael Mustacchi & Associates).

  The SFFD Fire Reserve: A Continuing Tradition of Service
More than 70 years since its founding, the Fire Reserve remains an important part of San Francisco's civic safety infrastructure providing trained support for the SFFD at greater alarm fires and other large-scale incidents.

In the event of a major disaster, the Fire Reserve stands ready to assist the SFFD in safeguarding the lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco.