‘Contingency plan’ in place to ferry firefighters into S.F. when disaster strikes

San Francisco’s crushingly expensive rental and housing markets have been pushing people out of the city for years. Few workaday employees can lay out, say, $3,500 for a typical one-bedroom apartment in the city.

And in San Francisco, that includes many of its most important workers: firefighters. According to public records requested by Mission Local, 71 percent of San Francisco firefighters live outside of San Francisco. Only about 500 of the department’s 1,756 safety workers reside within city limits. 

In 2010, 66 percent of city firefighters lived outside of the city.

Firefighters have been pushed from the city and the Peninsula toward far outlying areas. San Francisco and San Mateo counties have both seen declines in fire department employees over the last decade. As workers move to more affordable areas, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties have seen increases in the number of San Francisco firefighters living there. 

But the biggest increase has been in the number who live outside the Bay Area entirely. Now, at least one of every eight San Francisco Fire Department employees lives beyond the nine-county Bay Area, many of them in the direction of Sacramento. That’s an increase of 50 percent in the past decade.

Nearly 60 of the department’s workers live in far-flung Placer and El Dorado Counties, at least a 100-mile drive from the city. For 54 more workers, the department only lists their county of residence as “Other.”

“New hires have difficulty finding housing in such a difficult market,” said Shon Buford, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 798. He says the overwhelming majority of new hires live outside the city since they come in making significantly less than San Francisco’s median wage of $96,000.

Fire Department spokesman Jon Baxter says that department personnel want to live in San Francisco, but high prices can put the city out of reach for public employees. “It took me personally 20 years to save up enough money to buy a house in the city,” he said.

In the case of a large-scale disaster — such as an earthquake that disables the bridges into San Francisco — the city says it has contingency plans in place to deal with situations that might arise.

“Bringing first responders is one of the considerations that we plan around,” said Francis Zamora, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Emergency Management. He said the city has emergency measures to transport rescue workers to the city via ferries and smaller vessels, potentially in conjunction with the Coast Guard. Depending on how widespread the disaster, the city could also draw on mutual aid from less-affected areas.

Baxter added that the fire department runs drills quarterly that simulate recalling workers to their stations from wherever they may be living. “Recall is going to be very speculative, either inside the city or outside the city,” he said. Firefighters inside the city may take longer to be recalled than those outside the city in some cases, depending on how affected they and their families are by a disaster.

A majority of Fire Department employees would be affected by closures on the city’s bridges, having to find alternate routes or arrive by water. In the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, an upper section of the Bay Bridge collapsed and the San Mateo Bridge was closed as a precaution, although the Golden Gate Bridge remained open. However, the epicenter of that 6.9 earthquake was about 75 miles south of the city, near Santa Cruz. A more severe and/or closer earthquake could obviously do more damage.

In the great earthquake of 1906, a magnitude 7.9 temblor with an epicenter only a couple of miles from San Francisco, fires burned for days afterward, destroying tens of thousands of buildings.

Presumably, in ’06 — before any of the bridges were built — the vast majority of firefighters lived within city limits.