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Brief History of the Oakland Fire Department
The Oakland Fire Department started as a series of all white volunteer brigades in the 1800’s in the east bay townships and cities of the time. The Oakland Fire Department was officially formed on March 13th, 1869 with its first house, the Phoenix Engine Company No. 1 located at Fifth St. and Washington Street. As Oakland grew, the department absorbed neighboring volunteer departments as the City absorbed neighboring towns. The Department evolved and grew with the City into the diverse, skilled, courageous, and highly trained Department that protects Oakland today.
The Oakland Fire Department has constantly innovated and improved. The age of motorized equipment began in 1908 with the purchase of the first motorized Chief’s vehicle. The complete transfer to motorized vehicles occurred by the early 1920s. Also in the 1920s, the Department became one of the first in the nation to hire African American firefighters, although they were segregated into two overcrowded and under equipped stations. This policy ushered in a tumultuous process of bringing equality and fairness to the OFD. This process would include numerous fights for integration, fairness in hiring and promotion, hate crimes, lawsuits, and eventually a department that both reflects and protects one of the most diverse communities in the country.
Oakland would again blaze a new trail in Fire Service with the appointment of Chief John Sweeney in June, 1955. Two months later, Chief Sweeney ordered the integration of all of Oakland’s fire stations, thereby becoming one of the first in the country to desegregate. As with the rest of the country, desegregation was contentious and filled with strife as generations of racism had to be overcome so that firefighters of all races could live and work together with respect and equality. While this was a slow and difficult process, progress occurred and firefighters of all races began to work together and respect each other. Department policies changed more slowly though.
Chief Sweeney’s administration also included extensive reorganization and modernization of the department with the construction of 13 new firehouses, relocation of three houses to the growing residential areas of the Oakland Hills, purchase of new modern equipment, building of a training tower, and the transition to the 3-shift, 56-hour work week of the modern Oakland Firefighter.
While the Oakland Fire Department has always been on the forefront of Civil Rights, challenges have been numerous and persistent. While the first African American firefighters were hired in the 1920’s, the first Asian American firefighter wasn’t hired until 1972, and the first woman wasn’t hired until 1980. Equality and promotion were even slower to be realized, requiring numerous lawsuits and fights to make a reality. However, on May 1st, 1981, Oakland appointed Samuel Golden as Fire Chief, the first of many African Americans to serve in this position. While it has been a struggle at every step along the way, today this department reflects the community it serves with a diverse leadership and an equal and inclusive attitude throughout the firehouses.
As the department has grown, new technologies and skills have been implemented. The department has developed special operations units and facilities to deal with any and all disasters, including an Emergency Operations Center, Hazardous Materials Response team, Water Rescue team, specialized BART operations, Heavy Rescue, Airport response, and Urban Search and Rescue. The full capabilities of the department have been tested on numerous occasions. The men and women of the Oakland Fire Department have put their lives on the line to protect the community during numerous major disasters in Oakland . These disasters include the Caldecott Tunnel Fire of 1982, the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and the Tunnel or Hills fire of 1991.
The Oakland Fire Department has come a long way from its beginnings as a volunteer department of the mid 1800s. It has changed and evolved with the community as technologies have changed and improved. Today, the courageous and diverse group of men and woman that make up the OFD serve the community with professionalism, honor, and skill.
Sources for this brief history include "Test of Courage" at www.pbs.org and "Oakland Fire Department" by Captain Geoffrey Hunter.