You would think that wood is the last thing anyone would bring to a fire. But the San Francisco Fire Department delivers wood to every fire it fights, in the form of handmade wooden ladders that the Department has built and maintained for nearly a century.
Only a few fire departments in the United States still use wooden ladders, but San Francisco is the only city that makes it own custom ladders by hand. In a workshop located in the Bayview district, city workers build and restore over 350 wooden ladders used by San Francisco firefighters. They make 13 different types of ladders to meet the requirements of this architecturally challenging city, with its dense housing, Victorian attics, and steep winding streets.
But why does the city use wooden ladders, instead of, say, metal or fiberglass?
The reason is safety. The hilly streets of San Francisco are draped and crisscrossed with low-hanging power lines and trolley cables. Wooden ladders do not conduct electricity and are therefore much safer than metal. And the heavy ladders – some weighing over 300 pounds – remain stable in strong winds that sweep off the bay.
Materials used in ladder construction are the finest available. Hand selected old growth woods – fir, hickory, and ash – are stored in the workshop for 15 years before they are used so that they can acclimate to San Francisco’s humidity. Although this careful craftsmanship and regular maintenance might seem expensive, wooden ladders’ quality and longevity make them economical in the long run.
“The San Francisco Fire Department has got this unique history,” said Glenn P. Corbett, associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And the ladder is a part of that.”
Indeed, San Francisco’s history is inseparable from fires that leveled the city and forged its ultimate design. The Earthquake and Great Fire of 1906 destroyed 28,000 buildings – about three-quarters of the city – and killed more than 3,000 people, making it the worst fire in U.S. history. But San Francisco endured other “great fires” before 1906 during its Gold Rush era. In fact, the city suffered five massive burns and rebuilds in just 18 months, starting on Christmas Eve 1849. Fire is such an integral part of San Francisco’s identity that its official seal, adopted in 1859, is topped with a burning phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes.
History meets daily life in the ladder shop, where the department still uses its original linen-bound handwritten logbook – nearly a century old – to record when ladders are built, repaired, or retired. Retiring a ladder is not a frequent occurrence. These durable, well-maintained ladders provide long service. The oldest ladder still in daily service was originally built in 1918.
Like all traditions, the knowledge of ladder making must be passed on in order to survive. The shop’s master ladder makers, Jerry Lee and Qing Du, are nearing retirement. Ladder-making is “part science, it’s part art, it’s all craftsmanship and experience,” shop supervisor Michael Braun said. “To find replacements for gentlemen like this is not easy.” The entire ladder-making tradition rests with them and refinisher Peter Misthos. (More of their story can be seen in the Emmy-nominated video at the end of this post.)
Lee has built and maintained ladders for 27 years and considers the shop’s greatest achievement to be its safety record.
“No one’s been injured on one of our ladders,” he said. “It gives [firefighters] confidence when they go up the ladder. The last thing they think about is that it will fall apart on them.”
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.