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Fire! Fire! Fire!

Duffy Riding with Engine Co. 21
Duffy with Engine Co. 21

from Reporter’s Note Book by Duffy Jennings.

I took a three-day crash course at the San Francisco Fire Department’s Fire College to learn enough of the basics to keep from getting myself hurt or killed. Then I donned my own genuine SFFD uniform with an official silver badge, turnouts (firefighting coveralls) and a distinctive yellow press helmet to help other firemen identify me at fire scenes. I joined the crew at the busiest firehouse in San Francisco, Engine Company 21 on Grove Street between Broderick and Baker Streets, two blocks from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle.

This was the 1972 equivalent of what journalists now call being “embedded.” At first the guys at 21 Engine were none too happy to have a reporter in their midst. It was a closed group that relished and guarded their privacy once the firehouse doors closed. Gradually, I was able to earn their trust by keeping up my end at fires and in the kitchen.

After four weeks of working with them 24 hours on, 48 off, I came back to the paper and spent almost as much time writing a series of six articles titled, “Riding with Engine 21.”

The newspaper promoted the series with a full-page ad, reading: “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! Answer the bell with the firemen of the busiest Engine Company in San Francisco. Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings rode the fire rigs and fought fires with the men of Engine 21. Read his exciting story. Starting Monday.”

The first article in the series began:

The bells hit. Onetwothree. Onetwothreefourfive. Onetwothree. Onetwothreefour.

With the last four, a thunderous clatter of wooden chairs and benches. Heavy black boots pound across the linoleum.

The men of Engine Company 21 scramble out of the communications room and slam through the big double doors to the apparatus floor. Paul Arvonen shouts into the firehouse intercom:

“Inside for the engine! Chief goes too! Box 3534, Fillmore and McAllister! Everybody!”

The huge automatic overhead garage door grinds open. Men run down both sides of the pumper, jump on. Seventeen tons of glossy red steel, rubber and hose.

Paul guns life into the big diesel. Biff O’Brien, on the back step, gives the go-ahead. Paul jams down the accelerator. Siren. Red lights.

The rig bolts out onto Grove street, into the night. Mike Keating grips the handrail on the right side with one hand, snaps up his turnout coat with the other.

Paul takes a wide turn at Broderick street. Up the block, tear around the next corner. Down Fulton street jostling through traffic. Two ear-shattering blasts of the air horn drown out the siren.

Inside the cab of San Francisco’s busiest fire engine, Joe Medina barks into a radio headset:

“21 Engine responding to Box 3-5-3-4!”

© 2019 by Duffy Jennings. All Rights Reserved.

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I joined the crew at the busiest firehouse in San Francisco, Engine Company 21 on Grove Street, two blocks from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle.