New Santa Monica History Museum exhibit explores the 125-year evolution of the city’s fire department

By Michael Aushenker

Santa Monica firefighters respond to a call in the 1940s

Santa Monica firefighters respond to a call in the 1940s

You don’t need to ride with a Dalmatian or slide down a pole to get the inside story on Santa Monica’s pioneering fire department.

“Warriors of Flames,” a newly opened exhibit at the Santa Monica History Museum, chronicles the history and evolution of SMFD in a salute to its 125th year.

“Firefighters are unsung heroes. A lot of people know what they are, but not what they do,” said Danielle Lewis, the museum’s volunteer coordinator, operations assistant and curator of the “Warriors of Flames” exhibit.

Today, Santa Monica Fire Department’s 110 firefighters and civilian staff, under the command of Chief Scott Ferguson, serve more than 92,000 residents in an 8.3-square-mile area, according to the department’s website. Each turbo-charged diesel fire engine in the department’s arsenal contains 1,300 feet of hose capable of delivering more than 2,000 gallons of water per minute.

That wasn’t always the case.

Santa Monica’s organized firefighting efforts date back to October 1875, when six residents organized The Crawford Hook and Ladder Company, according to the department’s website.

As the city expanded, so did the number of fires, and on March 22, 1889, concerned locals gathered to adopt the constitution of the Santa Monica Hose and Ladder Company, and the Santa Monica Fire Department was born.

Over the next 100 years, the SMFD’s hand-drawn carts and leather buckets gave way to horse-drawn vehicles and steam pumpers before the advent of gasoline engines. In 1974, Santa Monica’s fire department became the first in the nation to deliver paramedic services via a fire engine company.

The Santa Monica History Museum exhibit puts the entire history in perspective with the help of some two dozen vintage photographs, skewing mostly toward the early days.

A group portrait of the Santa Monica Hose and Ladder Company,  circa 1889

A group portrait of the Santa Monica Hose and Ladder Company,
circa 1889

From the collection of former Santa Monica firefighter Dominic Smith came “a complete uniform, all four helmets, badges, brass nozzles,” Lewis said. “Mostly older stuff, but a few things more recent.”

Divided into three areas, Lewis’s exhibit highlights the equipment used, from horses to fire trucks; the people, including firefighters, fire chiefs and such heroes as Johnny Ross, who received a medal of valor in early the 1970s for pulling a man out of a burning truck; and the major fires of Santa Monica, from the various infernos plaguing the seaside Pacific Ocean Park amusement park across two decades to the St. Augustine’s church fire of 1966.

However, it’s the smaller anecdotes that Lewis finds most fascinating about the department’s history, such as when the department put its horses to pasture after converting its force from drawn carts to motorized engines.

“When the fire bell would ring, the horses [would still respond]. They still needed to go pull a truck,” Lewis said. “So even the horses were dedicated.”

“Warriors of Flames” runs through Sept. 27 at Santa Monica History Museum, 1350 7th St., Santa Monica. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Call (310) 395-2290 or visit santamonicahistory.org.

michael@argonautnews.com

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