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Fire Department History

1874 – 2000

The year was 1874. Queen Victoria was Queen of England. Benjamin Disraeli had just become her Prime Minister. President Grant was in his second term as the country’s President. California’s Governor was a Republican by the name of Newton Booth.

This was the year Herbert Hoover, Winston Churchill and Robert Frost were all born … and on December 5, 1874, the San Rafael Fire Department was organized. By posting a notice in the Marin County Journal, Mr. William Miller and Mr. J.B. Rice stated their intention to organize a volunteer company for the purpose of providing fire protection for the newly incorporated City of San Rafael.

Enthusiastic response from local citizens led to the formation of a 45 man volunteer fire department, led by elected sheriff, James Tunstede. The volunteers came from a variety of professions including a school superintendent, a county surveyor, a justice of the peace, carpenters, plumbers, painters, blacksmiths and merchants.

The newly formed company called itself “San Rafael Hose Company Number One”, but soon changed its name to the “San Rafael Hose, Hook and Ladder Company” to better identify its duties. The company proudly proclaimed the motto “We are always ready when you want us!”

Funding for this company came from a variety of sources including member dues, annual dances, gifts from grateful citizens who had property saved from fire, and occasional petitions to the town trustees.

The company’s first piece of equipment was a four wheeled hose cart which was pulled by hand. The men would literally run to the fire pulling the hose cart behind them. San Rafael had a very good gravity fed water system as well as strategically placed fire hydrants throughout the city – by 1894 there were 55 hydrants in the city.

Unlike cities with poorer water pressure, San Rafael did not need to rely on hand or steam pumper carts to supply water pressure to the hoses. To produce a strong firefighting hose stream, the firemen simply connected the hoses to the nearest hydrants and applied the hose stream against the structure or item on fire.

However, there were some drawbacks to this system. In the Spring of 1875 the Company responded to a fire in a barn on B Street. It was literally a dark and stormy night. When the company began to pull the hose cart to the fire, it immediately became mired in the mud until enough men gathered to free it. When the company arrived on the scene it was discovered that the wrench to open the hydrant had been left back at the firehouse! The final insult to injury came when the firefighters finally got the wrench only to discover to their dismay that they did not have enough hose to reach the fire; the barn burned to the ground. The art of firefighting had room to grow.

The San Rafael Hook and Ladder Company continued to evolve and improve. By the 1890’s, the Company had 90 volunteer members, two hand pulled hose carts, two hose carriages and one hook and ladder wagon that was pulled by a rented team of horses when needed. Later the horse team of Tom and Jerry were purchased to provide full time service and availability in order to reduce response time to a fire.

In 1913, the Department entered the modern era when it purchased its first motorized chain driven apparatus- a Pope chemical wagon. The days of running to the fire with a hand-pulled or horse pulled wagon were gone forever. Tom and Jerry lived out their lives pulling a coal wagon in San Anselmo.

Entering the 21st Century

Fast forwarding from 1914 to today, 86 years has brought extensive changes to the size and services of the San Rafael Fire Department (SRFD). As the Department enters the 21st Century, the personnel and apparatus of today offers state of the art skills and equipment.

Perhaps the biggest change that can be seen in the operations of a fire department is the shift from fire suppression to fire prevention. Nationwide, the number of fires a city experiences has dropped dramatically as stricter building codes are enforced along with the simple invention of the smoke detector.

Today, 70% of the emergency calls that come into the SRFD are for medical related needs. While training and support for fire suppression services are essential, today’s firefighter is capable of providing many more services than a generation ago. With more emphasis on fire prevention, the SRFD personnel spends an appreciable amount of time working with the community to educate businesses and residents on how to ensure safe work environments and homes.

Today, the San Rafael Fire Department is an organization with 90 professionals trained in specialties including emergency medical care, firefighting, hazardous materials and emergency preparedness. A philosophy called “Community Fire Servicing” has been instituted which emphasizes a collaborative and proactive relationship with the community in order to develop the services the community need and desire.

We invite you to explore our website and encourage you to contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.  We look forward to serving you in this next century as we continue to evolve and bring you new programs and responsive community services.

Researched and Prepared by Captain John Williams

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