Hazmat Team Spotlight: San Diego Fire Department

Located on the Pacific Coast in the southwest corner of Southern California, San Diego is the sixth-largest city in the U.S. and the second largest in the state. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department provides fire, rescue, hazardous materials, EMS and...


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Located on the Pacific Coast in the southwest corner of Southern California, San Diego is the sixth-largest city in the U.S. and the second largest in the state. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department provides fire, rescue, hazardous materials, EMS and lifeguard service for a population of approximately 1.3 million people within the 72.7-square-mile city. In addition, hazmat service extends into the entire San Diego County (4,255 square miles). Fire department and lifeguard services are extended to 17 miles of coastline three miles offshore.

Transportation exposures for potential hazmat incidents in the San Diego area include Interstates 5, 8, 15 and 805 and State Route 163. Hazardous materials are also transported out of Mexico (the Mexican border is 16 miles south of San Diego). A U.S. Border Patrol transportation holding area is located just north of the Mexican border in San Diego County, where there is a potential for leaks and spills to occur. The Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad, which has rail yards in San Diego, transports hazardous materials through the city and county. San Diego is a major marine shipping point and hazardous materials go in and out of the port area on boats, trucks and trains. Pipelines and tank farms are another source of hazardous materials exposure in the city and county.

San Diego is home to San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego. These facilities have many research laboratories that pose potential hazmat response dangers. Ordnance and hazardous materials associated with military facilities in the city and county also pose risks.

Commercial installations in the response area store large amounts of chemicals, including propane, chlorine, anhydrous ammonia (associated with many cold-storage facilities related to the vegetable industry), pesticides (agricultural industry), plating shops and clandestine drug labs. Because of San Diego's location, nearly every type of hazardous material could be shipped to or through the area. Hazmat team members must be ready to deal with a diverse group of chemicals.

Prior to 1889, San Diego was protected by volunteer firefighters and during some periods had no organized fire protection at all. In 1872, Engine Company 1 was organized and fully staffed by volunteers. The apparatus consisted of a horsedrawn wagon and 12 buckets that had to be hand filled with water to fight a fire. The early volunteer department continued to grow and in 1887 boasted two steam engines, a hose wagon, 11 horses and 3,500 feet of hose.

A series of tragic fires in the mid-1880s led to the formation of the city's first paid department on Aug. 5, 1889. Equipment consisted of two steam engines, a hose wagon, two hose carts, a hook-and-ladder, and 4,000 feet of hose. Early firefighters were known as "foremen" and "extramen." Each foreman was paid $12.50 per month and an extramen received $10. Engine drivers and hose-carriage drivers were paid $75 per month and engineers were paid $100. Engineers maintained the steamers and rode the rear step of the steamer in order to light the boiler on alarms. Firefighters worked 24 hours a day for 28 days, then had one day off. Family members often lived in the stations with the firefighters.

In 1917, San Diego became the first fire department in California to have all mechanized equipment. Two years later, the department launched the world's first gasoline-driven fireboat, built entirely in the fire department shop by firefighters.

Today, the department is led by its 14th fire chief, Jeff Bowman. Fire companies are housed in 45 stations and there also are nine permanent lifeguard stations (25 during peak season). San Diego Fire has approximately 1,133 uniformed personnel and 19 civilian employees for a total of 1,252. The department runs 46 engine companies (with an additional 13 in reserve); nine truck companies (with four more in reserve); 14 medic units; a rescue squad; two hazmat units; one Environmental Response Team unit; a foam unit; six airport crash/fire rescue vehicles; one helicopter; three light-and-air units; 11 brush units; two water tenders; a mobile communication unit; 25 lifeguard vehicles; and five all-terrain vehicles. It also is home to California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8.

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