Sirens at San Quentin*
BLACK smoke belched skyward and the red flames licked greedily at the shed as if they knew there were more than 200 52-gallon drums of oil in it.
Motorists on U. S. 101 in Marin County, California, just about 20 miles north of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, pulled to the side of the road muttering, “Boy look’t her go. She’s a goner for sure!”
But they didn’t reckon with the men on the two pieces of red fire equipment that came speeding six miles down the highway, sirens screeching and bells ringing.
When the chemical company pulled up to the fire, two of its men led in with the chemical line while the other man dumped the tanks. He then ran over to the pumper which had just pulled up and aided the men on it to lead out while the driver raced down to a nearby creek and went to suction.
Soon the big line was thrashing and wiggling. The men didn’t stand outside and fight the fire—they led into it. There were plenty of comments from the onlookers, some of whom were helping to drag hose, at that.
A little while later, one fireman came crawling out of the inferno dragging the unconscious form of another. A safe distance from the flames, he placed the unconscious figure in the proper position, began to give artificial respiration. It wasn’t long until the smoke victim was back in there with his comrades.
When the firemen emerged after the victory was theirs, the crowd of Sunday drivers gave a round of approval. But it wasn’t until the pumper came backing up to be loaded with wet hose for the return trip that they noticed the big, gold letters on the hood. They said: “Calif. State Prison. San Quentin.”
An excited hubbub ran through the crowd. Surely, those men, those firemen who had just done such a swell job couldn’t be convicts, inmates of San Quentin.
But they were. That is, eight of the nine were. Not only were they inmates but they were lifers, and between them, they represented more than 100 years of prison time served.
The other man was George Mantlow. Chief of the San Quentin Fire Department for the past six years. Formerly an Army sergeant and a captain of the guards at the famous prison, Mantlow took over after Ollie Olson went to tending the prison switchboard on the MacArthur shift —midnight to 8 a.m. But more of that later.
Qualifications for Firemen
To get on the fire department, each inmate had to have ten years and a clean record under his belt as well as a recommendation from the Captain of the Yard and his department head before the warden, now Clinton Duffy, famed penologist, would appoint him. Then there was the trifling matter of being in good health, at least 150 pounds and five feet eight inches tall.
*Facts and pictures for the above story were furnished by John P. O’Brien, former inmate fireman at San Quentin Prison, through permission of Warden Clinton Duffy the Author.
The firehouse at San Quentin is a stuccoed frame building, two stories in height. It is situated near the warden’s office in the block-long space between the gate to the reservation and the “front gate” to the prison. There are the usual sleeping quarters upstairs, brass poles, and an apparatus floor with a special bedroom down there for the chief. All the men, with the exception of the chief, sleep upstairs.
The firemen stand watch at the desk from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. The chief takes any night calls.
Apparatus consists of a pumper and a chemical truck. The pumper is •capable of delivering 572 g.p.m. The •chemical has two forty-gallon sodaacid tanks.
The pumper carrries 1100 feet of 2 1/2inch hose, 150 feet of two-inch “house lines,” a 150 gallon water tank, 200 feet of booster hose, a fortyfoot extension and a ten-foot roof ladder.
The chemical carries 900 feet of 2 1/2inch hose, chemical line, two ladders and 150 feet of two-inch hose.
In addition, each rig carries 2 1/2 gallon extinguishers, axes, picks, shovels, brooms, fittings and other small equipment, including eight gas masks—which make the firemen the envy of the “gas house gang,” as Jack O’Brien puts it. They use the lethal chamber now at San Quentin.
The men are equipped with regulation coats, bunkers, boots, helmets, gloves, belts, etc. Both rigs roll on an alarm with the pumper leading the way, manned by five men and the chief.
House lines and extinguishers are widely distributed throughout the reservation. Hydrants have a standing pressure of fifty-eight pounds. In addition there are two booster pumps, one, a 100-g.p.m. stationary, is inside the walls; another is capable of 1,000 g.p.m., and is located in the town of San Quentin, just outside the walls. It is manned by two lifers.
Alarms are given by telephone to the switchboard operator who in turn relays them to the fire department. The guards in the eighty-odd towers on the reservation act as fire lookouts. When an alarm is transmitted, the big siren, used only for signaling an escape or a fire, is sounded.
The pumper and chemical are the only pieces of automotive equipment allowed to go out the reservation gates without search by guards there! Even the warden’s car and cars belonging to other officials are subject to search before they roll out.
The little department protects not only the prison proper but the “valley” where there are more than eighty five-room cottages occupied by guards and their families, the “uptown” section where the warden and parole board members have their residences, and the town of Point San Quentin, outside the front gates. In addition, the boys roll on grass and other fires as far away as twelve miles from the gates. San Rafael and other towns have offered assistance on several occasions, but the boys were always able to decline, with thanks.
In 1931 someone decided the fire department had to reorganize. Ollie Olson was named chief and immediately put in several months with the San Francisco department, riding and working with the various companies and studying methods used. When he got through, he wrote a drill manual for the S.Q.F.D. that is used today.
Routine of the Day
The day’s work for the firemen logins at 5 :45, when they turn out. The chief gives his orders for the day, assigning each man to certain household duties, which are rotated. When the early tasks are completed, four of the men go inside the prison to the mess hall for breakfast. When they return, the other four go. Should there be an alarm while one crew is at breakfast, the four men on duty roll with the pumper, the other men are picked up by a State car, hurried back to the firehouse where they follow the pumper on the chemical.
When the men return from breakfast, the major tasks of the day are begun. Apparatus is polished, everything is put in order. Then the trucks roll out for the morning drill. As they roll up to one of several spots used for drilling, the chief calls out the number of the drill they are to do and away they go, each man at his post.
On wet days, there are classroom activities, such as first aid drill, knot tying, net jumping, gas mask drills, etc.
After morning drills are over, the • men are allowed to read books sent out from the prison library, tend to the gardens that surround the house, walk up and down in front of the house within hearing distance or in any other way that does not violate any of the rules.
When a fire call is received from the telephone operator, he touches things off by sounding a large gong, recalling all men to the apparatus floor. As soon as the man on watch gets the location, away they roll. Trucks are washed and cleaned after each fire.
Firemen are not allowed to attend the ball games at the prison but are allowed to go to the movies, four at a time. They get a bonus of an extra meal after the regular supper hour if they have a run at night that gives them a workout. They get better meals at supper than the average prisoner and also receive four sacks of cigarette tobacco (and five boxes of matches) per week. Incidentally, there are no locks or bars on the doors or windows of the firehouse and, proud of the job they are doing and the trust put in them, none has ever attempted escape.
One week every three months is spent in checking equipment distributed throughout the prison and in recharging all extinguishers.
One of the guards, George Fitzgerald, acts as an assistant to Chief Mantlow and has full charge of fire inspections. He has two short-term inmates who aid him in inspecting hydrants, oiling them and doing the other maintenance jobs necessary.
There are two huge reservoirs on the reservation. One with fresh water holds 2,250,000, and the other, with salt water, 800,000. Then, of course, San Francisco Bay is mighty handy.
Since Pearl Harbor, a score of extra men have been trained. All are short-termers to lessen the chance of their desire to make a dash for freedom. They are escorted by five guards who take them from their cells to the firehouse as soon as a blackout or air alarm is sounded.
When the blackout signal is received, the jute mill whistle blasts loud and long and two sirens placed at opposite ends of the reservation wail the fluctuating air raid alarm. The pumper, fully manned, races to the front gate and the chemical to the back gate. They stand by with regulars and extra firemen ready to fight fires started by incendiary bombs. When the all clear sounds, they return to quarters.
Present Administration Popular
Most of the men in the famous prison count time as “B.D.” and “A.D.” which, to them, means “before Duffy” and “after Duffy.” Warden Clinton Duff, widely known for his humanitarian treatment of the men and his continuing fight to rehabilitate them, is highly respected by the men as a whole and his coming has made great changes in the prison.
It has meant a difference to the firemen, too. They get better meals now than they used to, for one thing. Before present food conditions existed, the men used to make for the back door of the flaming house, and raid the icebox as they went to work. Now they don’t have to for they are well fed.
There have been some widely known men on the S.Q.F.D. at one time and another. Among them was the famous Kid McCoy and Matt Schmidt, who is now a free man. Schmidt served twenty-two solid years on a charge of helping the McNamara brothers blow up the Los Angeles Times building at which time some twenty-nine persons were killed.
It can be easily understood that men with time on their hands (the theme song played by the prison orchestra on the Mutual-Don Lee network during a recent thirteen-week half-hour show was “Time On My Hands.”) look forward to a little action now and then and while none of them fall into the category of firebugs, they certainly are fire fans.
Some Novel Experiences
It’s not hard to understand how strange, and sometimes humorous things happen in the S.Q.F.D.
Jack O’Brien tells of the time there had been a quiet period for many moons. Shortly after suppettime, a call came in. As the men raced to the rigs, a second call for a different fire came from the operator. The pumper was sent to the second, the chemical to the first. As luck would have it, both were small fires and both rigs and crews cleaned up in short order, arriving back at quarters simultaneously. Just as the drivers were backing the rigs in, there came a third call. Both rigs pushed out and in short order had the third fire under control. Jack says they still talk about that “threealarm hour.”
On another occasion, O’Brien recalls using a hand pump with such great care on a fireplace that had backfired that the lady of the house (a guard’s wife in the town of Point San Quentin) asked him to splash the fluid around a little more and not be so careful. “We’ve been trying to get new wallpaper from our landlord for the longest time,” she explained. O’Brien, always the gallant, obliged. (P.S. The lady got the new wallpaper.)
Sirens at San Quentin
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A stove backfired in a guard’s home and ignited the wooden house. The S.Q. firemen arrived to find the blaze spreading rapidly and the guard’s wife on the floor, out cold. While most of the crew fought the fire, others rescued and revived her. Heavy rain was pelting down at the time and as soon as the fire was out, the crews pushed back to the station as fast as they could go, which is normal procedure, anyhow. Fifteen minutes later, a huge limousine rolled up to the reservation gate to discharge a passenger who vociferously thanked the aged couple in the car. The passenger was “Blackie,” one of the inmate firemen who had been left behind. He had gone to the roof to check conditions there and each crew thought he was on the other rig.