William L. Miller served as Chief Engineer from January 17, 1956 to July 16, 1965. He was the Fire Chief when I came on the job in 1959. Los Angeles had grown tremendously since the time Chief Miller joined the department in 1933 – without the corresponding growth of the fire department. The population growth escalated into an urban sprawl of a magnitude never experienced in the historical development of any city in the world. The fire protection challenges attendant to this growth were awesome, from the new building explosion in the San Fernando Valley to new homes in the Santa Monica Mountains. The airport and harbor were also expanding at a rapid pace. In 1956 the LAFD had 2,832 firefighters, 89 engine companies, 30 ladder trucks, 15 salvage trucks and eight rescue units. The LAFD had a ratio of only two firefighters per 1,000 residents. Other large cities had four. First alarm districts averaged five square miles, compared to less than two miles in cities of comparable size. Compounding the problem were the large number of antiquated fire stations and apparatus.
In 1947 the LAFD had earned a Class 1 rating from the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU) – the first given to any city with a population over 500,000. Now nine years later the population explosion and building boom had put that Class 1 rating in jeopardy. Chief Miller’s challenge was to bring the department up to a level to retain the Class 1 rating and keep fire insurance rates in the city low. A major program was developed to improve the fire department, the water systems and building regulations in the city. While developing new standards, Chief Miller hit upon an idea which would have many ramifications. He would need public support for what would have to be a jumbo-sized bond issue for fire department improvements. Chief Miller recognized that few people had ever been inside a firehouse. He decided upon a department wide open house on the first Saturday in May.
The idea succeeded beyond his best hopes. Chief Miller reported that more than 100,000 people visited fire stations in the city on May 5, 1956, and had close-up looks at apparatus and firehouse facilities while being escorted by firefighters in dress uniforms. The following year, California Governor Goodwin Knight, with Chief Miller’s encouragement, proclaimed a statewide Fire Service Day, May 4, 1957. Fire Service Day thereafter became an annual event throughout California and serves to bring fire safety lessons and public awareness of fire departments to the public’s attention. More than 50 years running, this month’s Fire Service Day falls on May 9th.
Through the years special themes were given to Fire Service Days. That day on May 12, 1979 was declared Arson Suppression Day using the theme, “With Your Help, We’re More Than a Match for Arson.” A major publicity campaign involved newspapers, brochures, billboards and an hour long television documentary hosted by Randy Mantooth, co-star of the “Emergency” television series. Captain Patrick McGuiness, commander of the LAFD Arson Section and author Paul Ditzel worked with telephone officials in establishing California’s first toll-free tipster hotline.
Arson was forcefully brought to the public’s attention when two LAFD firefighters were killed battling incendiary fires which occurred only 17 days apart. On April 25, 1979, Firefighter Brian E. Phillips, Truck 102, died of injuries in a fall from the aerial ladder (Full story in the April, 2009 issue of the Grapevine. The Hollywood has a memorial display for Firefighter Phillips) and on May 12, 1979, Firefighter Lynn R. Hazlett, Squad 39, died of suffocation in a commercial building fire. May 12th was Fire Service Day.
Apparatus Operator Thomas G. Taylor, Truck Company 60-B, died January 28, 1981, of burns in a roof collapse at an arson caused fire at Cugee’s Restaurant. The arsonist was arrested and convicted, but has been up for parole hearings several times. One hearing was in March of this year and members of the LAFD, including Fire Chief Terazzas, personally attended. We are thankful that the arsonist was again denied parole.
Fire Service Day May 9, 2015
The City of Los Angeles has certainly grown since 1956 with a population of just over two million then. Amazingly the LAFD has not kept up with that growth in providing the corresponding resources for optimum protection for the people and property of the city of now more than four million. Have you looked at downtown L.A. lately? The Proposition 13 cuts in 1978 and the budget cut of 316 positions in 2011 reduced the LAFD staffing back to almost the 1956 numbers of approximately 2,800 personnel. The LAFD has grown tremendously in resource capability with a full EMS service, Urban Search & Rescue, Air Operations, Marine Task Force, Haz Mat, communications and incident management in the last 50 years. So the personnel of the LAFD have been doing much more with fewer people. It is time to bring the LAFD back to at least the pre-2010 staffing and resource level through a yearly addition to the budget for a maximum of four consecutive years.
Another fact that may surprise you is the in 1965/66, the City’s population was 2,660,000 and the authorized uniform positions were 3,430 and we had 112 fire stations. In 2015 we have fewer uniformed members protecting more than 4,000,000 people. The LAFD has 106 fire stations now. Those 106 fire stations and special venues will be open to the public on Fire Service Day this year and again the LAFD Historical Society will be having its annual Pancake Breakfast at the Hollywood Fire Museum. New Fire Station 27 next door to the Museum (Old Fire Station 27) will have open house and demonstrations of fire fighting and rescue operations. It will be a great day with a full pancake breakfast and yard sale at the LA Fire Museum and a visit to Fire Station 27. We plan on having retired Captain Barney Nipp there overseeing his trainees on the grill.
Submitted by Frank Borden