Phoenicians Still Rise to Provide Aid
When they ring a second alarm in San Francisco, fire fighters are not the only men who jump into action.
Behind the fire scene, a unique team is being called on a special telephone network. It is the 38 members of the Phoenix Society. Their dual mission: aid to fire victims and cooperation with the Red Cross in rescue and survey work.
Unique among the civic and fraternal organizations in San Francisco, the Phoenix Society is an exclusive organization. The handful of fire buffs who founded the society 40 years ago made certain that only men who would carry on its rigid traditions would ever be admitted to membership.
Attendance at two-alarm or greater fires, day or night, is a requirement. And Phoenicians don’t care much for excuses. That is why one member toted his fire radio throughout his brother’s wedding at Sonoma, 50 miles away, and another, a frequent traveler, receives fire calls in his car or hotel room, even when he is in Canada! A particularly dedicated member even left his wife in labor at a maternity hospital while he answered the siren’s call. And an astonished restaurant owner watched helplessly as a threealarmer broke up a monthly meeting of the society at his establishment.
Most members have expensive portable and home radios tuned to fire department channels. All are called via a special subscription telephone service the moment a second alarm is transmitted.
Even this dedication is not sufficient to qualify a man to become a Phoenician. He must be interviewed by the ra (president), pharaoh (vice president), and the keeper of the faggots (treasurer) as well as a committee selected from the directors, who are called patriarchs. When society members have been satisfied as to a candidate’s qualifications, he must still be investigated and approved by the chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. The chief himself and his deputy chief are honorary members, known as the praetorian and the patrician. Other honorary members—and they are few—also are called patricians.
The ancient nomenclature stems from the legend of the Phoenix, the fabled red and gold-feathered bird of Egyptian mythology which lives 500 years, then immolates itself on a nest of herbs and rises from the ashes, ready for another five centuries. The phoenix is also an emblem of a San Francisco risen from the earthquake and fire of 1906, a symbol which is a central part of the design of the city seal.
Behind the pageantry and the traditional names, Phoenicians are a serious bunch—“dedicated, sincere and reliable,” in the admiring words of Chief Keith P. Calden, who credits Phoenix Society members with helping his fire fighters “in many ways.”
“Liaison work with the Red Cross has been extremely helpful,” adds the chief.
Pete Ashen, director of the Red Cross disaster service in San Francisco, endorses Calden’s praise. As an official operational unit of the American National Red Cross disaster service in San Francisco, Ashen points out, the Phoenix Society may work on “disaster survey teams, provide emergency assistance of shelter, food or clothing, serve coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches or cold drinks to victims and emergency workers at the scene.”
“The Phoenix Society has served as the eyes of the Red Cross, and as a working unit of the disaster service for over 30 years,” Ashen says, citing the organization’s continuing close teamwork to meet human needs in time of disaster.
When major fires cause displacement of large numbers of people, Phoenicians, wearing their distinctive helmets and engraved fire line pass badges, both bearing the society’s insignia, also guide evacuees to central locations where they can rest comfortably and safely while temporary shelter and other emergency needs are being arranged by the Red Cross.
Fire fighters, appreciative of the assistance they receive on the fireground, also recognize Phoenicians as friends whose regular contributions of coffeemakers, refrigerators, television sets, blankets and other amenities make life in firehouses more pleasant. And a grateful public benefits from continuing educational efforts and society-sponsored dinners honoring outstanding heroism among fire fighters.
Thomas A. Larke, Jr., the insurance executive who called the first meeting of fellow fire buffs who were to form the Phoenix Society of San Francisco, would have been proud of his successors—and of the department which they are proud to assist.