Photo by George Lipp

‘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. 

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  1. You raise a valid concern. Firefighters would love to live in San Francisco, still my favorite City. But like the 1989 earthquake; firefighters rush into the City. One firefighter responded to Jack London Square and when ferries were taking too long he commandeered a row boat and rowed to the City. The phone system crushed, but firefighters knew their responsibility and almost 1000 firefighters were in the City within a few hours driving around bridges. Firefighters will always answer the call!
    Fred Sanchez
    Retired SFFD

    Still would respond!

  2. Starting salary for firefighter is between 70-80k, take home pay for two weeks (48 hour work weeks) after taxes and all other dues and deductions is under $1,100, very hard to live in the city let alone raise a family with that pay. Over the years with promotions (for those that do) the wages increase.

  3. Outside of the insane run-up to the cost of housing over the last 5 yrs, public safety workers were (and are) well paid and most could afford to rent/buy in-town. Other factors were at work – like schools (which have only improved lately), and lifestyle choices ()not everyone cares to live in the noisy, dirty city to raise kids). Particularly with the ability to flex their work times, working On one week and taking 2 weeks Off has its appeal.

    lt might make an interesting story to find out what motivates these employees to live where they do.

  4. Also, don’t firefighters pull insane shift hours that we all would want?

    It’s a plush job. The dangers from actual fires involved are real but are not often, and safety first, no hero protocols are followed. Firefighters also enjoy a lot of time off, decreasing their commute times.

    Still, like all first responders, we are happy to have them when we need them.

  5. Mission local only pretends to care about first responders when it suits their narrative.

    1. It’s not so much anyone saying you HAVE to live where you work, but with first responders, proximity helps… a lot…

    1. Hello there —

      Firefighters are well-paid, but $100,000 a year isn’t near enough to buy property in San Francisco. Also, if you’re not from here and have no specific love for this city, there’s no reason to not buy cheaper elsewhere.



      1. The article fails to note that this has been going on since long before the cost of housing became an issue. And it also fails to note that the City has programs that provide interest free loans for down payments to public safety employees. This is a choice that many have made for at least several generations. Housing is the excuse of the day, but we need to be honest here. And it’s not just S.F. There was a firefighter in Berkeley who lived in Oregon. Swapped shifts so he had weeks off at a time.

      2. Joe,

        Hayes-White hated the volunteer NERD force made
        up of citizens who live here.

        Hopefully, the new Chief will bring it back.

        Happy holiday


        1. That is totally untrue. I am a member of NERT and ALERT (police) The chief has always been at our nert events and taken an active part. There is no way she ever hated NERT but encouraged it as a helping hand in the event of a disaster. Where do you get your information?

  6. “Going to Kansas City,

    Kansas City here I come”

    Few years back when these figures were released one firefighter
    was found to be living in Kansas, City.

    They flew in as needed.