LAFD History – The LAFD Demolition Squad

June 30, 2018

One of the strategies used to control the enormous fire that occurred after the earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906, was the demolition of buildings in the path of the approaching flames. This provided a clear space that prevented the extension of the fire into unburned areas of the city.

Chief Ralph J. Scott

In the 1920’s, under the direction of LAFD Fire Chief Ralph J. Scott, a Dynamite Squad, also known as the Demolition Corps, was developed. It consisted of 64 firefighters. They were evenly divided on both platoons and specially trained in handling explosives stored in strategically located bunkers throughout the city. The Demolition Corps trained for jobs including dynamiting of fire-damaged walls and smokestacks, preparing firebreaks, clearing highways of obstructions, combating oil storage and gas well fires, plus a myriad of other tasks. Ironically, the Corps more often than not was called to incidents for which they had not been specifically trained. This is where the LAFD ingenuity came in to solve the problems.

At midnight, February16, 1925, Battalion Chief Wesley H. Augustine and Captain Forrest W. Moore commanded the Dynamite Squad when it was called to the Atwater district during torrential rains which had overflowed the Los Angeles River and washed away six homes. Veering from the riverbed, the flood was cutting a channel which threatened to carry away many more homes between Glendale and Silverlake Blvds. Using three cases of 100 percent blasting gelatin, the Dynamite Squad worked for more than eight hours under extremely dangerous conditions amid flood tossed logs, trees and debris. Eventually they blasted the river back to its normal channel and the homes were saved.

During the World War II years, the members of the Demolition Squad received additional training from explosive powder manufacturers. Dynamite Squad Officers attended sabotage training classes offered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Board of Fire Underwriters. The demolition rig was, for many years, housed at Fire Station 82, and for lack of use, was deactivated in early 1969.

The LAFD Demolition Squad Manual

In 1944, the LAFD published the Demolition Squad Manual compiled from conferences of the officers and members of the Los Angeles Fire Dept. Demolition Squad. The LAFD Historical Society has two of these rare documents and the following information is excerpted from them.

Chief Engineer John H. Alderson wrote the forward to all members: “Pursuant to the authority vested in the Chief Engineer by the Rules and Regulations, this Demolition Squad Manual is established as part of the practices and procedures of the LAFD. It has been compiled as an adjunct to the Rules and Regulations and shall have equal force and effect in departmental administration. To this extent that all members whether assigned to the Demolition Squad or not, are affected, it will be complied with.”

“The members of the Demolition Squad are picked for intelligence and good sense, and they should understand explosives – what they should do with them and what is dangerous – a kind of knowledge that can only be gained by experience. Men, who through ignorance, carelessness or bravado, follow unsafe practices, are dangerous to themselves and others. The Demolition Squad shall follow all safety regulations and observe good practices when called into action.”

Chapter 1 The Use of Explosives in Conflagrations

The use of dynamite to combat conflagrations has been viewed with misgivings by those who have large sums of money at stake in the building that may be involved by the fire. This has been due to the past records of fire at which explosives have been used. In the past, the use of explosives has developed into the spectacular instead of the practical application of explosives. In other words, a sort of mammoth 4th of July celebration. More authorities can be cited who state that explosives should not be used than will condone their use or believe in the possibilities of their successful application.

The reason for this bad record is due to the fact that cities in which explosives were used did not have a dynamite squad trained in the use of explosives, did not have a plan of operation or never considered using explosives for this purpose.

One successful operation in stopping a conflagration with dynamite occurred after the fire consumed 24 city blocks in Colon, Panama, in April 1940. Dynamite was used to stop a conflagration in the residential area of Atlanta, Georgia. The fire department was of the opinion that the dynamiting was of some value but the Underwriters considered its use in this case as being questionable.

Should this Squad be called into action to stop a conflagration, its endeavors will in all probability be directed towards cutting a firebreak across the face of the fire by leveling frame buildings, This firebreak will be as narrow as consistent with conditions. George W. Booth, Chief Engineer of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, believes it should have a total width of over 200 feet.
When called into operation, the Squad will go far enough ahead of the fire to have time to load the buildings and just before the fire reaches these buildings, the plunger of the blasting machine will be operated. At any time before the fire reaches these loaded buildings, should the wind change, the blast will not be fired and no damage will be done by our employees.

The plan of operation, as developed by the officers of the Demolition Squad, consists of stretching primacord throughout the buildings and placing explosives as shown later in the diagrams of individual buildings. These diagrams are floor plans of homes of members of the Squad and are used to bring out the theory and plan of operation.

Chapter 7 – Emergency Operations

Should the Chief Engineer or the Deputy Chief Engineer consider the use of explosives at a fire or other emergency he will call for the chief officer on duty in charge of the Demolition Squad. The chief officer in charge of the Squad will notify the Signal Office of his destination and proceed immediately in the car assigned to his unit to the officer who summoned him. In the event that the chief officer of the Squad of the On-Duty-Platoon is unavailable, a captain of the Squad who is designated as his relief will be called for. Transportation will be sent to him. He will then proceed to the scene of the emergency and report to the officer who called him.

Should the Chief Engineer or the Deputy Chief Engineer decide to use the dynamite at the scene of the emergency, the officer of the On-Duty-Platoon in charge of the Squad shall:
1. Determine the amount of explosives needed.
2. If the amount of explosives in our magazines is inadequate for the situation, order sufficient explosives from the Ford Alexander Corporation in Whittier or from the powder company that has the contract to furnish explosives to the department. At the time of ordering, ascertain whether they have immediate transportation facilities available to deliver the explosives immediately.
3. Arrange with the Platoon Commander for the transportation of:
A, All caps, dynamite and equipment from Engine Companies 20, 56 and the department magazines (two trucks)
B. The Demolition Squad from Engine Company 6 to the scene of the emergency, (64 men)
C. If necessary, the explosives from the magazines of the Ford Alexander Corp. or other powder dealers.

Frank’s note: The Manual goes into great detail on operational procedures and the use of specific teams and equipment to accomplish the mission.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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