Our History


by Mike Flynn, Retired Apparatus Operator, Station 4

In 1877 the first volunteer fire company was organized in the town of Berkeley. A hose reel and hand pump were housed in a shed near the waterfront and the firemen were the owners and employees of the early factories and yards located in what was then called Ocean View. The first fire company was called the Beacon Company and was located at Fifth and University. Soon after, the Posen Fire Company was established at Sixth and Bancroft.

By 1890, the population of Berkeley had grown to 1,500, and residences and business had expanded eastward. The Columbia Fire Brigade was organized at Addison, east of Shattuck, soon followed by the Alerts at Shattuck, south of Dwight Way. By 1894, all of Berkeley’s volunteer fire brigades had been organized, including the North Berkeley Company near Shattuck and Vine, the Peralta Company at Russell east of Shattuck, and the Lorin Company near Emerson and Adeline.

In 1894, the companies elected a Chief, W.G. Pascoe, and a constitution was adopted to govern the organization. A fire commission was instituted, composed of one representative from each volunteer company. All members served without pay and the volunteers numbered about 200 men. Five dollars a month was paid to each company for the care of hose and equipment, and five dollars a month for the care of each horse. Fire fighters in the early days used bucket brigades and hand pumps; eventually, the bucket brigades were replaced by horse drawn hose and ladder wagons.

By 1904, the population of Berkeley was nearly 15,000 and the need for a full-time professional fire department had become apparent. In September of 1904, the City Hall was destroyed by fire and in October, a paid department was created. Members of the volunteers were the nucleus of the newly formed Berkeley Fire Department, and one of the early volunteer leaders, James Kenney, became the first fire chief.

In 1906, the population of Berkeley jumped to 45,000 as a result of the San Francisco earthquake and the stream of refugees from the destroyed city. During these early years, horse drawn steamers were in widespread use and rapidly replacing hand pumping operations. By 1910, the fire department consisted of ten companies quartered in nine stations by a total of 74 firemen. In that year, the department’s first mechanized hose wagon was purchased. By 1914, the department was fully mechanized, the first such department west of the Mississippi. Berkeley was also the second department in the United States to adopt the two platoon system of staffing and was widely recognized as a progressive fire department.

In 1916, Chief Kenney died as a result of injuries suffered at a fire at the El Dorado Oil Works. Chief Kenney was much revered by his men and the park that bears his name in West Berkeley today was created and dedicated in his honor. Berkeley’s Fire Prevention Bureau was also formed in 1916.

On September 1, 1923, Berkeley suffered a catastrophic fire that swept into the north end of the city from what is now Tilden Park, destroying over 600 homes and businesses. The ignition source for this terrible fire, a small grass fire, started over three miles from the city limits. On that day, low humidity coupled with high winds and temperatures created conditions of extreme fire danger that rapidly pushed the fire over the ridge tops and into the homes north of the University of California. The pattern of wildland fire caused by extreme fire conditions would be repeated several more times culminating in the firestorm of October 20, 1991.

After the devastating 1923 fire, efforts were made to reduce the chance of a recurrence of such a tragedy. The water distribution system was upgraded, several new fire stations were built (including the replacement of one destroyed in the fire) and staffing levels were increased. Unsuccessful attempts to ban the use of wooden shingles as a roofing or siding material were made by city officials because of the part such materials played in the rapid spread of the fire. Fire trails and fire breaks were constructed in the late twenties and a fire watch tower was built at the top of Grizzly Peak. This tower served as a fire lookout and weather station until 1964. In 1927, Sydney Rose, Berkeley’s second fire chief, was also tragically killed in the line of duty.

The population of Berkeley continued to grow steadily. From a population of 56,000 in 1920, it reached 82,000 by 1930. The fire department continued to develop innovations that became national trends. Chief Rose was one of the country’s first chiefs to purchase a resuscitator for use by the rescue squad and later for the truck companies. Chief Haggarty, who succeeded Chief Rose, established the use of two-way radios, a precedent soon followed by surrounding communities. Chief Haggarty was also an early pioneer in the use of the smoke ejector, an electric blower used to remove smoke from buildings, and eventually used by most fire departments in the nation.

The 1930’s was a difficult decade for the fire department because of several tragic deaths. In 1931, Lt. John Ray Hutton and Hoseman Ernest Maxwell were killed in a natural gas explosion that also claimed the lives of four citizens and resulted in severe injuries to Chief Haggarty. In 1933, Hoseman E.P. Clarridge died from injuries at a fire and in 1939, Lt. Charles Ortman died after his heroic rescue of three neighbors trapped in a burning house. Lt. Orman was the father of Bill Ortman, whose ice cream parlor became a landmark in North Berkeley until his retirement in the early 1990’s.

During the depression, from 1932-1935, Berkeley firemen voluntarily gave up one day’s pay per month to be allocated to the Berkeley Welfare Society. It was not until the late 1930’s that the city again began to address the problems of an aging fleet of apparatus, purchasing several new engines. In 1938, Station Six and the drill tower were constructed at the present location on Cedar Street between 8th and 9th.

In 1940, the Civil Service System was adopted and the first promotional examinations were held. In 1941, the fireman’s working shift was changed from 10 and 14 hour shifts to the system of 24 hours on and 24 hours off, and in 1945, the 72 hour work week was inaugurated. During the war years, the fire department took responsibility for much of the civil defense training and preparedness. By 1949, all Berkeley fire apparatus was equipped with two-way portable radios. The call letters remain the same today; KMA 704. In the late 1940’s, many of the new firemen recruits were returning WWII veterans who brought a level of dedication and maturity from their military service to the fire department.

The 1950’s was a decade during which the fire department reached its greatest strength in terms of manpower and number of stations. By the mid-fifties, the Berkeley Fire Department had an all-time high of 179 sworn firemen. Although a reorganization in 1957 reduced the number of stations from ten to seven, manpower levels remained at this level well into the 1960’s. The fire department during this era increased its fire prevention activities and became very active in the community. Until recent times, the majority of Berkeley fire fighters were Berkeley residents and, as Berkeley citizens, were influential in local affairs.

The 1960’s was a decade of great change for the fire department. The Free Speech Movement at the university, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War Movement, People’s Park, and radical politics created a new political landscape for the city and the fire department. This was a turbulent time of social change and protest, and Berkeley was at the epicenter of much of this activity. Fire department personnel were not immune from the storm of protest. Fire fighters often felt caught in the middle in their efforts to protect life and property. Many of these fire fighters were WWII veterans who had great difficulty understanding and accommodating to the sudden changes and new perspectives.

Prior to 1962, few African Americans had been hired by the fire department. The Civil Rights Movement brought an overdue recognition of our society’s failure to provide equal opportunity and Berkeley went to work to correct this failure. Affirmative Action programs in the city also included the fire department. In 1967, six black fire fighters were hired, and efforts to increase the diversity of the department became a priority. Berkeley’s senior fire fighter, Captain Wayne Dismuke, is a member of that recruit class of 1967. In 1997 he was voted Fire Fighter of the Year by his peers.

The 1960’s was also a time of widespread station construction. The present Station 4 was built in 1960, Stations 3 and 5 in 1963, and Station 2 in 1965. Station 1 was built in 1965/66 but this project was an unforeseen necessity as old Station 1 was destroyed by a fire in February 1965. By the end of the 1960’s, new demands on the department were creating a rapidly changing workplace.

The 1970’s was a time of further reorganization for the fire department, and staffing levels continued to decline. On September 22, 1970, a major fire occurred in the hills between Berkeley and Oakland. Although the fire was in Oakland, the Berkeley Fire Department was a critical contributor to the battle that eventually required 102 engine companies and resulted in the destruction of 37 homes in Oakland.

This decade was a time of increasing tension between the city and the fire fighters, resulting in a bitter and divisive strike in 1975. This strike, although resolved without any disaster befalling the city, created long-lasting animosities within the department and it took many years to repair the damage done to the organization’s morale.

In 1977, the fire department took over the responsibility for ambulance service from the police department. In initiating emergency medical transport, the fire department took the first steps toward becoming a full service fire and rescue organization. This service now accounts for about 80-85% of the 11,000+ emergency calls that the fire department responds to annually.

In the early1980’s, engine company staffing was reduced from four firefighters to three, a cost cutting measure that put the department near its present staffing levels. The most significant fire of this decade occurred on December 10, 1980 when a dry northeast wind fanned a fire that destroyed five homes along Wildcat and Woodhaven and nearly crested the ridge at the top of Marin. This fire again demonstrated the vulnerability of the Berkeley community to fires produced by Diablo wind conditions.

In 1985, the department hired its first female fire fighter, Debra Pryor. Debra Pryor is now the Deputy Fire Chief. Presently, nine women are serving as fire fighters in the City of Berkeley.

In 1986, the Berkeley Fire Department began paramedic service, and paramedic firefighters have become an essential part of the department’s ever-expanding mission. In 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, that caused such extensive damage to Bay Area cities, required a great deal of the Berkeley Fire Department. Since this earthquake, the city and the fire department have redoubled efforts to increase preparedness for the inevitable next major earthquake.

The 1990’s were overshadowed by the 1991 firestorm, the worst conflagration in modern U.S. history. This fire left 25 people dead, and destroyed more than 3,400 dwellings in Oakland and 63 homes in Berkeley. This catastrophic fire was fought by more than 400 fire companies from throughout the state and burned for four days before it was declared out.

The aftermath of this tragic fire resulted in many changes and innovations in mutual response policies between neighboring jurisdictions. A hazardous hill area was established and efforts to mitigate hazards on public and private property through expanded inspection and fuel management programs were in place within the year. Special wildland fire fighting training and mutual aid drills were increased and conducted regularly. Community Emergency Response Training, known as CERT, which includes classes in fire suppression, disaster first aid, and light search and rescue, was provided by the fire department through the Office of Emergency Services.

Along with the advances of modern society has come a steep rise in the number of hazardous materials. In the 1990’s, the fire department established a specially trained Hazardous Materials Response Team. The department’s state of the art Haz-Mat vehicle, activated by the Haz-Mat team, deals with spills or accidents endangering the public.

By the end of the 1990’s, all Berkeley fire stations except one have undergone seismic retrofits authorized by the citizens under Measure G. A new Emergency Operations Center was built and construction was started on a new public safety building. The Office of Emergency Services has been a division of the Fire Department since 1997.

The Berkeley Fire Department currently has seven fire stations, housing seven engine companies, two truck companies, and three ambulances. There are currently 130 sworn fire suppression personnel. In 2006, the department responded to over 12,500 calls from the Community.