On November 23, 1938, a fire started on the boundary of Los Angeles and the un-incorporated area of Malibu. At that time, Fire Protection in Malibu was provided by the Los Angeles County Forester and Fire Warden Department and consisted of a few tank wagons and small patrols. Because of this, and the fact that the fire started in Los Angeles, the LAFD dispatched a mass of fire companies and personnel into the fire. T
The area was experiencing low humidity and high winds. The fire spread all the way east to Mandeville Canyon (approximately six miles) where it was brought under control. Approximately half of the area that burned was burned in the first 16 hours of this 11 day fire.
The ability of the LAFD to contain and finally extinguish this large brush fire was remarkable. One has to only look back (over 75 years ago) to appreciate this feat. To begin with, the country was in the throes of the “Great Depression.” The Department hadn’t had the luxury of purchasing any new fire apparatus from 1931 to 1937-38! Apparatus used at this fire included apparatus dating back to 1924 (Engine Co. 71) and 1923 (Engine Co. 76), many of which were still “chain drive” (1924 American La France). Most engine apparatus were equipped with water tanks of only 60 to 120 gallon capacity and had a limited amount of small hose. Most were also equipped with hose reels containing 1″ rubber hose approximately 200′ in length. In addition, all engine companies were equipped with 200′ of 1 1/2″ hose which was part of the standard LAFD 1 1/2″ “Wye Assembly.” The Wye Assembly consisted of two 100′ 1 1/2″ hose lines connected to a 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ wye. Operation of the Wye Assembly was very quick and was standard procedure throughout the Department when small lines were indicated.
The LAFD organization included a “Mountain Patrol” component. This unit was organized in the same manner as a battalion. At one time, there were three patrol stations which were located along the top of the Santa Monica mountain area of the City on or adjacent to Mulholland Hwy. The patrol operated tank companies similar to the LA County Forester and Fire Warden. They had small brush fire equipment and in addition operated small patrols with one or two patrolmen. To bolster this group’s firefighting capability, Engine Company 76 was placed into service with a 1923 Seagrave 1000 GPM apparatus at Patrol 1 located at 12601 Mulholland Blvd. Engine Company 71 was located at 10801 Bellagio Rd. and was upgraded with a 1924 American La France 750 GPM Engine replacing a 1919 American La France Engine.
Today, most apparatus not only have closed cabs, they have air conditioning and heating as well. Most apparatus built in the 1920’s did not have closed cabs nor doors and windshields! All firemen stood on the tailboard or running board while responding to fires. Windshields were later added by the Department Shops. Most apparatus had two wheel mechanical brakes. Driving in the Mountain areas with these brakes was extremely dangerous.
This fire resulted in the first “Department Recall” over the “new” Fire Alarm System (1932 Alarm System). The Alarm System had been in use for seven flawless years and dispatched fire companies to thousands of incidents.
Recognizing this fire would require many fire companies and also a large commitment of manpower, the Chief Engineer, Ralph Scott, ordered the Fire Alarm Office to transmit a “Total Recall.” The Alarm Office thereupon transmitted the signal 9-9-9. Each Fire Station, upon receiving the signal, resulted in the company officers initiating the total recall of all off duty firemen. Although transmitting of the 9-9-9 alarm took only 15 seconds, the task of contacting each off duty member was much more difficult. Until the 1960’s, fire stations in Los Angeles did not have dial telephones in them. The two telephones (fire and business) in each station were both connected to a Fire Department operator located in one of the four Signal Offices. (The four Signal Offices were Westlake, Metro area, West L.A. at Fire Station 59, Van Nuys at Fire Station 39, and San Pedro at Fire Station 36.) Therefore, in addition to the members assigned to the Signal Office calling members’ homes by telephone, the station grapevines were used to make notification of the off-duty members for recall. In addition, in 1938, some firemen did not have a telephone in their residence, and in some cases their neighbors notified them upon being called by the Department. The public radio also assisted in announcing the recall.
It must also be noted that in 1938, many firemen did not own an automobile and had to respond to their stations by street car or bus. Included in the Transit Company franchise was the provision that firemen could ride free
Division 4, Assistant Chief Forrest Moore was the first chief on scene. In addition to requesting additional companies for the fire, Chief Moore requested that 100 men also be dispatched. This additional manpower was transported via the four transportation apparatus operated by the Department. These consisted of a truck with cab for the driver and officer. The rear was open with bench type seating facing each other for 10 men. These four apparatus had to be staffed with a driver and instructed to go to a Fire Station and pick up men and then transport them to the location requested. The Department of Water and Power came to the rescue and provided vehicles to assist. More than 400 LAFD personnel were transported to this fire.
The total recall of the Department and the staffing of all companies and the dispatching of 100 additional firemen originally requested to the fire were accomplished in approximately 2 1/2 hours! Even with the state of the art computers, cell phones, freeways, and other equipment, it would be a challenge to accomplish this feat today.
In 1938, the LAFD operated under the “Two Platoon” system – “A”and”B” platoons. The Department had no means to pay overtime for hours worked by its members. If a member worked at an emergency while off duty he would receive “credits” for time worked. The member would be compensated for hours worked with a comparable time off.
Because the Department actuated the Total Recall of all personnel, every member had therefore earned credits and was recorded in his Personal Record Book. Most time off was granted in small increments of a few hours and therefore getting the credit time off took many years to accomplish. This time became known as “38 Time”.
This was a very loose operation and a few individuals were thought to be taking advantage of their “38 Time.” This went on until the late 1950’s when the Department said enough is enough and cleared the books of any such time owed.
by Larry Schneider, LAFD retired