A Brief History of the Oakland Fire Department

The Oakland Fire Department has come a long way from its beginnings as a volunteer department of the mid 1800s. Here is a brief history of the Department.

Posted: September 10th, 2018 11:43 PM

Last Updated: January 20th, 2021 7:52 PM

The Oakland Fire Department (OFD) was officially formed on March 13th, 1869 with its first house, the Phoenix Engine Company No. 1 located at Fifth and Washington Streets. As Oakland grew, OFD absorbed neighboring volunteer departments. OFD evolved and grew with the City into the diverse, skilled, courageous, and highly trained Department that protects Oakland today.

OFD has constantly innovated and improved. The Department purchased its first car, a Chief's vehicle, in 1908. The complete change from horse drawn equipment to motor vehicles occurred by the early 1920s. Also in the 1920s, OFD became one of the first in the nation to hire African American firefighters, although they were segregated into two overcrowded and under equipped stations.

Although the hiring of African American firefighters was a major step forward, there was more work ahead. This included numerous fights for integration, fairness in hiring and promotion, responses to 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. OFDs policies changed more slowly though.

Chief Sweeney’s administration also included extensive reorganization and modernization of OFD with the construction of 13 new firehouses (also called stations), 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 OFD 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 OFD has grown, new technologies and skills have been adopted. OFD has developed teams and facilities to deal with any and all disasters, including an Emergency Operations Center, Fire Dispatch Center, Hazardous Materials Response team, Water Rescue team, specialized BART operations, Heavy Rescue, Airport response, and Urban Search and Rescue. The full capabilities OFD have been tested on numerous occasions. The men and women of OFD 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 (now Battalion Chief).