Fire Station 37, Ready to Respond

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San Francisco Fire Department’s Station 37 was built in 1914 at the corner of 22nd and Wisconsin streets, near the top of Potrero Hill. According to a local historian quoted in a 1996 The Potrero View article, the structure “went up without much fanfare,” since, in the years following the 1906 earthquake, “a lot of building was being done.” Today, the post is notable for its striking brickwork and the elaborate terra cotta that adorns its façade.  When an addition was proposed in the 1990s the subject of greatest concern in a neighborhood meeting covered by the View was “the loss of certain artistic details,” and a desire to keep the new, linked wing of the firehouse “as historically and architecturally compatible with the existing building as possible.”

The construction proceeded. To make way for a workout facility, women’s locker room, officers’ quarters, and communications room featuring a new computerized dispatch system, the station’s formerly detached kitchen and storage area located on the property’s north end were replaced in 1996 by a plain, beige, three-story structure. Simultaneously, the historic building to which it connected was seismically retrofitted, a process that involved removing the decorative tiles surrounding the garage door to embed supports. The station’s impressive entryway was subsequently reinstalled. 

The interior largely remains that of a classic, slightly antique firehouse, with original 1914 floors, a sliding pole firefighters still use to descend from their third-floor dorm, and a red fire engine equipped with a 50-foot wooden extension ladder and half-century-old, San Francisco-made brass fittings and valves that, according to Lieutenant Leo Tingin, look like “jewelry” when they’re fully polished before the station’s annual inspection. Tingin is in some ways a traditionalist, wearing a leather helmet that he calls his “best friend” – newer recruits rely on fiberglass – and pointing with pride to the handwritten daily logbooks that stretch back to the 1930s that line the facility’s bookshelves.

Despite installation of a digital dispatch system, Station 37 still has the card catalog that worked in conjunction with an earlier method of emergency communication. In the old days, when a fire occurred a bell inside the station would alert firefighters by ringing a particular number of times; each ring sequence signified a digit within a larger number. Once the whole number was ascertained, firefighters pulled the corresponding card from their file, which would show the street corner where the fire was taking place. The cards also designated which post was responsible for responding first, second, and third at each location, information that applies even today. Tingin continues to find the cards handy.  “I always reference these,” he said.

Station 37 is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If the power goes out in the neighborhood a generator inside the building keeps the facility fully operational. Four firefighters are on the premises during each shift, which starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the next day. The 24-hour shifts are followed by 48-hour breaks; every third cycle the furlough is extended to 72 hours. Every firefighter has a bed of their own upstairs, but on each shift a rotating “watch-person” must spend the night in a downstairs office, within arm’s reach of the call system, on a Murphy bed with “one eye open.”

The City pays for the fire engine, firefighting equipment, medical and cleaning supplies. Food, coffee, cable television, and furnishings are financed through “house duties,” the self-generated monetary pool from which the firefighters draw for their collective purchases, such as new chairs for the kitchen table, as determined by a group vote. The watch-person is responsible for cooking two meals for the crew daily, typically selecting the dishes without much input from others.

On a Friday in late July the menu consisted of banh mi sandwiches – using leftover pork belly – for lunch; Peruvian chicken with ají sauce for dinner. According to Tingin, SFFD’s “eating habits” have evolved over the years.  Lighter fare has replaced heaping plates of meat and potatoes; carb-conscious firefighters eat less pasta than they used to. “Guys would go back for thirds,” said firefighter Gillian Smith, “and now you hardly see anyone go back for seconds.”

When the Station 37 firefighters aren’t responding to a call they’re engaged in an almost constant process of self-readying. Each morning the outgoing crew exchanges information with the incoming team. The truck is inspected; gear is prepped. Daily in-house drills precede more complicated online training programs. Every Saturday, the firefighters check every fire hydrant on the Hill to make sure it’s operating properly. They also “do a lot of area orientation, just driving around to see what’s going on,” as Tingin put it. “We have a lot of construction projects right now. Usually, we’ll go in and talk to some of the contractors. We’ll try to schedule a visit with the site managers and get a walk-through for an orientation as to their sprinkler systems, their control panels. We want to get a good idea of the layouts of these buildings.” Nearly all of the new construction in the neighborhood is visible from Station 37’s roof, which has panoramic views.

“The Fire Department is utilized citywide to take care of some of the inspection stuff that the [San Francisco Department of Building Inspection] can’t do on a normal day-to-day basis,” Tingin explained. Firefighters check for cleared exits and working extinguishers. “We get to know what our buildings are. We can put notes in our dispatch: little things that we pick up on.”

Amidst all this preparation, Station 37 strives to remain a friendly, accessible, presence in the neighborhood, holding chili cookoffs with Potrero Annex-Terrace residents alongside the San Francisco Police Department, and inviting dogs to stop by for treats. They perform a yearly drill and assembly at Starr King Elementary School, impressing the importance of fire safety on the students and “getting them familiar with what we do.”

On average, Station 37 responds to three to six calls in a 24-hour period. When a request comes in the firefighters are expected to gather their equipment – about 100 pounds per person – and load the truck within one minute. The fire engine, built in 1999, holds 500 gallons of water and weighs 34,000 pounds; however, it’s able to navigate the Hill’s steepest streets. It can be a delicate operation, but Station 37 is nevertheless supposed to arrive at the scene of any emergency in under 10 minutes.

About 70 percent of the calls received by the station, in Tingin’s estimation, are medical issues. The San Francisco Fire Department addresses “car accidents, gas leaks, water leaks, fire calls, medical calls, hazards, wires down in the street, gas leaking out of a car, anything you can think of. We’re an all-risk agency,” he said. Station 37 covers Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Mission Bay alongside Station 29 – located at 299 Vermont Street – Station 9 – 2245 Jerrold Avenue – and Station 4, 449 Mission Rock Street. San Francisco has roughly one fire station per square mile.  The Wisconsin Street firehouse is one of the smallest; larger ones may keep as many as 15 firefighters in the house at a time.

Recently, Station 37 located a woman giving birth in a tent beside Highway 101 and transported her to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Carrying a gurney along dirt paths, the firefighters “had to walk quite a ways to get to that call,” said Tingin.

In 2015, the View reported on a series of fires that were cropping up from homeless encampments between San Bruno Avenue and 101, on a strip of land owned by the California Department of Transportation. Tingin said that these haven’t been a problem lately. Often, when calls come in about alleged fires within the camps on and around the Hill firefighters encounter only the smoke of a jerry-rigged barbecue at mealtime. In Tingin’s view, the sidewalk tents on 17th Street, near Vermont, pose a greater fire risk because of their proximity to parked cars. The tents, he warned, tend to be extremely flammable, burning hot and fast. The last time he’d dealt with a tent fire it’d destroyed two adjacent cars by the time the response team arrived.

The largest fire Tingin recalled was a five-alarm blaze that consumed a building site on Fourth Street in Mission Bay in 2014, requiring upwards of 150 firefighters to contain, two of whom were injured in the effort. He described the scene as “an entire city block that was open construction, basically just a matchstick box of two-by-fours, wide open and burning freely.”

Tingin, who grew up in South San Francisco before moving to the City at age 15, joined SFFD in 1995 after a stint at UPS. He got the idea to take the entrance exam from his mother, a hand therapist who had treated Fire Department patients. “Honestly, it wasn’t even on my radar. Now, 22 years later, I’ve been doing this, and I teach academy classes, and I’m a lieutenant up here,” he said. “I love it. It’s a great job.”

He lives in Brisbane, a 12-minute commute from the Hill. A San Francisco residency requirement, still in effect when Tingin joined the Department, has since been waived. “We have people from all over now.”