The following humorous “Quick History of the LAFD” was written by a talented LAFD member for the attendees of the Annual International Association of Fire Chief’s Conference held in Los Angeles in 1958.
1781 -1870: Every visiting fireman should indulge in the pleasure of poking fun at the host. This account might serve as ammunition or as a source of enjoyment as you compare it with your own history. Our ancients undoubtedly fought fire with the same zip and fervor as yours. They left us no accurate records of their firefighting endeavors. Probably the main difference between our past and yours is that we fought fires with a Spanish accent. Our earliest accounts mention three gallon leather buckets, the zanjas (irrigation ditch), and the peon (the vast majority of the citizenry). Structure fires in those good old days were a rarity in these parts. We wish we could lay claim to a superior fire department, adequate zoning, and a terrific building code and give it to you as an answer. The real reason was simply our adobe construction, tile roofs and wide open spaces.
1871 – 1885: As more and more Americanos entered the area, we evolved into the glorious era of a downtown business district, sprawling wooden residential areas and the famous volunteer fire companies. As in your cities, our volunteer firemen were full of pride, socially and politically prominent, and by their own admission, the best fire eaters on earth. Our “Confidence” and Vigilance” engine companies polished, varnished and fought fire (and each other) in the highest of fire department traditions. We had six volunteer companies and, as each had to be the best, the competition was terrific. We had our “plug guards” like some of you did. He was the company’s fastest runner and was equipped with a wooden barrel, leather lungs and a stone like expression. He would run ahead of the engines to the scene, put his barrel over the closest fire plug and stoically survey the confusion until his company arrived to perform feats of fire suppression that encroached upon the miraculous.
1886 – 1900: Our city progressed and grew, and by ordinance, created the Los Angeles Fire Department. The tears and wails of the volunteer firemen were quenched with regular pay and most of the 380 members were incorporated into the department. This was our organized introduction to the Rules and Regulations (R&R), discipline, and firemanship efficiency. In an attempt to eliminate the “oppressive traffic problem,” R&R #18 confined responses to a “trot” and “strictly prohibited” racing. This oppressive restriction caused one of our engineers to design and build the “hanging harness” for lightning like responses. We possessed the modern touch because one of our rules stated flatly that “destruction of property by water was inefficient firemanship.” Progress was steady for in ‘89 we used the new Civil Service personnel procurement system. This must have been an improvement over the spoils system because in that year one whole company was discharged by the Commission then promptly reorganized from a “new list.” By ’91 our budget had soared to $91,700 and in ‘93 the first “fire chief’s burden” (the annual report) was published. In ’98 we floated our first Fire Bond Issue for the tidy sum of $150,000. We were definitely on the way!
1901 – 1912: This is the period of Fire Department renaissance, famous firemen, more famous horses and studying for promotions. We started our Relief and Pension fund and the “annual battle of the budget.” We built a few fire houses along classic lines and bought some of the most beautiful fire equipment that has ever been built. We started to really go modern with the purchase of a “seven passenger Locomobile” for the Fire Commissioner. This was followed by years of debate between proponents for and against the horse. We plunged into the age of motorization with an additional purchase of three pieces of “motorized hose wagons.” Our Department’s shops were soon busily engaged in converting the heavier horse drawn equipment into motorized apparatus. We took progress in stride even to the extent of getting along with the public citizen. To their delight, our station houses began to conform to the surrounding structures – it was the beginning of our bungalow type houses. Our city retaliated with a “Firemen’s Pension Commission” and a comparatively fine attitude toward us.
1915 -1919: The Chief Engineer was induced to give up his horse and buggy for a Maxwell Roadster. His comments are unrecorded but he must have glowed with pride. We were then able to rid ourselves of the horse and buggy slavery of a 30 day month working period. Our two platoon system didn’t come easily as we had to shut down 10 engine companies due to financial pressures. Fortunately for us, efficiency was markedly increased by this greatest humanitarian movement experienced within the fire department. The organization of our Fire Prevention Bureau came next. With “50 selected fire personnel” the whole fire prevention effort was more effectively conducted and it became a real source of pride. It even included an educational program in the city school system. We entered a statewide contest between cities to determine who could produce the greatest progress in Fire Prevention measures in a one-year period. Even though we didn’t win, we made tremendous improvement. One forward move was the formation of the Arson Squad. It enabled us to achieve some flashing success in our battle against the fire bug.
1922 – 1925: With all this progress in motion it was inevitable that the last days of the horse were upon us. It was a day of great emotions for fireman and citizen alike. The “Bleeding Hearts” never had it so good! An official committee was duly appointed by the Mayor to cope with the civic crisis. Their finding was to “retire and pension” all remaining fire horses to Griffith Park (which was better than hay) for the remainder of their noble lives. The Department’s training program with its modern drill tower, drill master, and all that it implies, was greatly augmented by civilian sources. The technical staffs of local business and public services were marshaled to assist in the formalized training of fire department personnel. While the training program progressed, we took a long step toward handling the brush fire menace that plagued our watershed area in the city. The Mountain Patrol was organized, the area was compartmented by fire roads and fire breaks, and the first move toward the “door to door” inspections for public education and protection was commenced. We then opened up the first advanced fire school in the nation. It was an off-duty affair with cutaways, working models, and the latest of training aids. In less than two years it had an enrollment of 1,247 and was operating without excessive conflict to normal department functions.
1926 – 1933: The Photography Bureau was then brought into the fight against fire and the fire bug and quickly proved itself of great and lasting value. Our next venture was the formation of a Public Relations Detail. Their prime mission then, as now, was to sell desired reforms to a generally disinterested public. It was now high time to abandon the “day shift, night shift” form of platoon duty and bring on the “alternating day” type of working arrangements. This and other reforms were made that greatly improved the life of the Fireman. A holdout system was devised by a city employee and we burst forth with the first automatic fire alarm system with selector capabilities. Needless to say, this was loved and adored by firemen and next door neighbors alike.
1941 – 1950: The expected normal growth and progress continued during the next few years with the usual budgetary cramps and enlistments into the Armed Forces. Our “fringe benefits” included department furnished stoves and ice boxes. Maybe it wasn’t much of a gain at the time, but now we have city financed handball courts and outlets for electric blankets. As soon as the war was over we made rapid strides toward the use of radios as a means to increase our mobility and control. Training and equipment were geared to rapid post-war expansion and our growth and progress was probably much like yours. Perhaps our most spectacular moves were in the field of Fire Prevention. We instigated city-wide, house-to-house inspection movement at company level. This was in conjunction with our comprehensive business, industry, school and institutional program. Of course there is no intention to let up, but this closes the remaining fire prevention gap so far as money and time permits. We have ample records to show the value of this program.
Present Age 1958: Because your memories are good and records readily available, we will make no further definite claims. Our recent efforts will probably parallel yours wherever we have like needs. We have radar on our fire boats, good crash wagons at the airports and lots of water carrying apparatus for a fast, close quarter attack on fires. We are especially active in the fields of personnel management, administrative organization, public education and mutual aid. Civil Defense, radiological effects on our industry and community, planning for the future, and other current topics receive their fair share of attention. We haven’t mentioned our Rescue-Ambulance service, pension plan, sports program, or the million and one other items that comprise a segment of any modern fire department. We fully intend to experiment and progress to the fullest extent permitted a large department. So in closing, we ask you an obvious question – Have you ever seen a more sincere effort at “hiding the skeleton?”
Frank’s Note: It would be great if someone from the LAFD would assist me in continuing this humorous timeline to 2014, i.e. 1959-1970, 1971-1980, 1981-1990, 1991-2000, 2001-2014.