The Greatest Fire Alarm In American History

After 100 years, Dennis Smith finds the answer to the question of who saved San Francisco: The firefighters.


Earthquakes are often described as thunderous and frightening, like the sound of an approaching locomotive if you are standing in the middle of the tracks. The ground not only moves from east to west, but also from north to south and in heaving circles. The earthquake of April 18, 1906, began to...


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Indeed, the city, from the evidence gathered, would have circumnavigated such awesome destruction had Sullivan survived, for he was a man who understood the importance of incident command before its time. Having risen to the rank of fire chief in 1893 with the death of David Scannell (another world-famous fire chief), Dennis Sullivan was well educated, physically fit and a respected leader of men. San Francisco’s firefighters, who took their size-up of others as seriously as anything in their lives, loved their chief. Hailing from Florence, NJ, he was at 53 the youngest chief the city ever had. He had just celebrated his 13th year as chief three weeks before, having been promoted to the top job when he was 39 years of age.

Sullivan understood the fire problems of a peninsula city that was of mostly wooden construction, was mostly built on steep hills continually washed by the breezes coming from the San Francisco Bay and a city whose system of cisterns for fire protection had fallen into serious disrepair. He realized that the city’s low-pressure hydrant system was vulnerable in an earthquake situation, and for each of the six years preceding 1906 he pleaded with the Board of Supervisors to allocate the funds to build a high-pressure saltwater firefighting system. He was refused each time.

An Honest Man

He realized too that dynamite might be needed to make fire breaks in a conflagration, should one ever occur, and he made an agreement with the military at the Presidio to train sappers and to house dynamite for the city in case of emergency. The U.S. Army required the grand sum of $1,000 to build a dynamite shed to house the explosives, but the Board of Supervisors denied that request as well. It might be suggested that the Board of Supervisors, all of whom who were indicted in the year following the earthquake, could see no corruption opportunity in advancing the needs of the fire department, for Sullivan, alone of all agency heads, listed every dollar spent by the fire department in the city’s annual report. He was a savvy manager who saw that transparency in spending would prevent the city’s widespread corruption from entering his department.

During his tenure, Sullivan had made the San Francisco Fire Department one of the most modern and efficient in the world. It had the most current telegraph alarm system in the country, which directed the firefighters smoothly to the city’s fires through its street alarm boxes, bells in most of the firemen’s homes and 30 bells in business premises patronized by firemen. And, engine companies then had the most up-to-date steamers available, from Amoskeag, La France, and Clapp and Jones, most of them not more than eight years old, and all on a rigid schedule of maintenance. Sullivan was meeting almost daily with representatives of the new motorized fire trucks that were just becoming available. He had also modernized the training battalion – the firemen had mandatory drill periods, with two drill towers that were convenient for their training.

At the turn of the 20th century, Fire Chief Hugh Bonner of New York, perhaps the most well-known fire chief in the world, said of the San Francisco Fire Department, “It is as efficient and fully equipped with firefighting appliances as any city in the world, and it could be learned there all that could be learned of fire departments and their methods.â€

Another piece of bad luck for San Francisco that day was that General Adolphus Greely, head of the Pacific Division of the U.S. Army, was in Chicago attending his daughter’s wedding, which left Brigadier General Frederick Funston in command of the western military. Funston was undoubtedly a man of important prestige and much respected, but he was also the one man whose decisions on April 18, 1906 caused the destruction of the city.

Funston awoke with the shaking at his home, at 1310 Washington St. The house seemed to be rolling in waves, and the general immediately knew by the length of time that was passing that the temblor was a significant one. He lived at the northern base of Knob Hill in one of the finest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and because his home was made of wood and built on firm pilings it suffered no damage – from the earthquake.

Funston dressed quickly in civilian clothing and went into the streets to survey the damage, thinking that he would miss his mandatory morning coffee. He surveyed the damage to some of the houses around him and saw the beginnings of several fires. He would later write: “I realized then that a great conflagration was inevitable, and that the city police force would not be able to maintain the fire-lines and protect public and private property over the great area affected. It was at once determined to order out all available troops not only for the purpose of guarding federal buildings, but to aid the police and fire departments of the city.â€