San Francisco Fire Department Performs Dramatic Surf Rescue

Norm Rooker reports on an intense surf rescue operation that led four SFFD members to receive top awards from the Firehouse Heroism & Community Service Awards program.


On Feb. 18, 2004, three Canadian men sailed a 30-foot sailboat up the California coast and directly into a confluence of factors, forces and errors that culminated in their craft being broached, capsized and ultimately destroyed off of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. The San Francisco Fire...


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The SFFD has 1,800 firefighters, paramedics and chief officers who staff 42 engine companies, 19 truck companies, 21 ALS ambulances, two heavy rescue companies, two fireboats, nine battalion chiefs, four rescue captains (paramedic supervisors), two division chiefs, radio, administration and support services, and the airport division. Additionally, a number of companies double-staff various specialty response units, including the hazardous materials unit, light unit, foam unit, surf rescue unit, cliff rescue unit, California Office of Emergency Services (OES) mutual aid unit and four wildland/brushfire units.

According to statistics maintained by SFFD's Special Operations Division, second only to hazmat callouts, surf and cliff rescues represent the department's most-requested special operation request. Surf rescue calls range from tourists and citizens falling and/or entering the water, surfing accidents, wind surfers becoming caught in strong currents and carried out to sea, ferry boat accidents, and whatever else an active and creative public can come up with.

Chief of the Department Joanne Hayes-White, an alumna of one of the first SFFD rescue swimmer programs, said, "The surf rescue program is a vital component of the San Francisco Fire Department. As an administrator for the San Francisco Fire Department, it is a program that I place great value on and want to ensure its continuance and growth. The City and County of San Francisco is unique in that it is surrounded by water on three sides, which underscores the need for a well-trained workforce and high-quality service that our surf rescue program ensures."

SFFD's program was founded in 1986 by now- retired SFFD Captain Bob Fennell, who served from 1966 to 1996. "My first 10 years in the department," he said, "I was assigned to Station 14, which was the department's cliff rescue unit. As a former lifeguard, I kept getting "volunteered" to go into water to recover drowning victims and for in-water body recoveries. Until then, water rescue was officially handled by the two rescue companies, who were dive rescue certified, but were both located across the city in the downtown areas.

"In 1986, after Lieutenant Skip Olsen (Engine 18) stripped down to his skivvies and dove into the waters off of Ocean Beach to rescue a tourist, I was asked to develop a surf rescue program by then Chief of the Department Ed Phipps. As a former lifeguard and member of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, I modeled much of our training off of those aspects of my lifeguard training that were applicable to us."

Fennell and then Lieutenant Russ Albano (now a retired captain) assembled a program that was a mix of portions of the USLA Lifeguard standards and the American Red Cross Senior Lifesaving Program and put on the first SFFD rescue swimmer class in 1987. Working closely with the USLA, the surf rescue swimmer program continued to evolve and the San Francisco program became the pilot program and template for the USLA's Aquatic Rescue Response Team program for non-lifeguards.

The SFFD also reached out to the two other agencies responsible for surf and cliff rescue in San Francisco, the National Park Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, to work out communications, training, techniques, SOPs and unified command for such rescues.

Lieutenant Commander Tammy Koermer of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco was the command pilot on the first helicopter at the Feb. 18, 2004, Ocean Beach Surf Rescue.

"The professionalism and enthusiasm demonstrated by the San Francisco Fire Department surf rescue program and the National Park Service makes it a true pleasure to work these joint operations," Koermer said. "We're all working with each other for the success of the mission, not just trying to do our best in spite of one another."

Currently, five SFFD stations, 14, 16 (home of SFFD's two rescue water craft), 18 (home of the surf rescue unit), 23 and 34 (home of the cliff rescue unit), have as a mandatory requirement to make or stay at the house that each member has one year to successfully pass the week-long rescue swimmer program. Each member must also maintain that status by passing the recertifying qualification swim time and field exercise every two years. A member who fails the requalification swim must successfully complete the week-long rescue swimmer program in that same year or transfer out to a non-rescue swimmer station. Two years ago, this requirement was extended to apply to both rescue companies as well.