Fire Trek

Why do San Francisco emergency workers live so far away?

Ever tire of San Francisco? Start missing the tall trees, the big redwoods? The sound of silence?

Or maybe you pine for the desert, the big flats outside of Los Angeles, where it's hot and the strip malls run out into the sand and everyone talks, like, you know, southern?

Or perhaps you lust for the wide-open valleys up north -- the ones that flood once a year and have to be kept open for pastureland -- for cows and a couple of thousand deer, and the wildflowers and trees and jack rabbits, and people all friendly, with their families and small hardware stores and the big open sky?

Well, too bad you're not a San Francisco firefighter or police officer. Because San Francisco fire and police people, when they're not on duty, hang their hats in lots of different places -- places with names like Truckee and Tuolumne and Tustin and Willits and Windsor and Nevada City and San Diego. Places that are far away as the crow flies, and as the highway runs. Places that might make for an inconvenient commute should the Big One ever hit.

A list of home ZIP codes of San Francisco firefighters and police officers shows that the city's uniformed forces are a far-flung lot indeed. It's all perfectly legal: In 1974, California voters passed a ballot measure, Proposition 5, that bars cities from requiring that their workers live within city limits. Since then, attempts to require San Francisco workers to live within a certain distance of the city have been struck down by the courts. And given that long leash, some San Francisco firefighters -- whose 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedules allow them time to travel -- have found room to roam, as have some city police officers, although to a lesser extent.

According to Fire Department documents, the cities where San Francisco firefighters live include: Truckee, up in ski country, just across the state line from Reno, Nev.; Tustin, south of Santa Ana in Orange County; Guerneville, Forestville, and Cazadero on the Russian River; Modesto, Stockton, and Merced in the Central Valley; Tuolumne and Soulsbyville in the Stanislaus National Forest, where Yosemite is; and Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma, and Napa in the wine country.

According to Police Department documents, the cities where San Francisco police officers live include: San Diego, at the bottom of the state; Willits, up Highway 101 north and east of Mendocino; Kirkwood, the ski resort in the Sierra Nevada; and Red Bluff, which is just south of the Trinity Mountains, as close to the Oregon line as it is to San Francisco.

And while more San Francisco firefighters and police officers live in our fair city than in any other single city in the state, Novato's 94947 ZIP code has more firefighters -- 67 -- in its borders than any other single ZIP, while Pacifica's 94044 holds the record for police officers, at 95. Average price of a home in Novato: $289,000.

It is that factor -- the cost of housing -- that is responsible for pushing city firefighters beyond San Francisco borders, says Deputy Chief Howard Slater, in charge of personnel for the Fire Department. After four years on the force, firefighters make $50,000.

"I grew up in the Marina," Slater says. "Do you think I could afford a house in the Marina?" Slater lives in San Anselmo, in Marin, along with 13 other firefighters.

"That's what drove me to move -- real estate prices," says Lt. Paul Fuhrman, who lives in Daly City. "If I could afford it, I probably would have lived in the city."

According to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the average price for a two-bedroom, two-bath home in the city is $250,000 to $300,000. For three bedrooms, the price jumps to $400,000.

But that's still below the average house price -- $580,000 -- in Mill Valley, where 16 city firefighters and seven police officers live. Or the $800,000 average house price in Marin's Belvedere, home to eight firefighters and four police officers.

In all, 34 percent of San Francisco firefighters and 36 percent of police officers live at city ZIP codes. The other 66 and 64 percent, respectively, live elsewhere.

"Police officers are allowed to live anywhere outside the city they like," Lt. Jim Long of the SFPD points out. Including San Diego? "No one lives in San Diego that's a police officer," Long says. The number is on the list, though. "Like I said, no one in the Police Department lives in San Diego," Long repeats.

Over the years, San Francisco has made various attempts to limit the distance from the city that municipal employees who might be needed in times of calamity can live. That's because city rules require that all emergency workers, including firefighters, present themselves for duty in the case of a natural disaster.

In 1982, for example, after mudslides and flooding in Marin closed the Golden Gate Bridge, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution begging the state Legislature to allow the city to amend the 1974 ballot measure and make residency requirements of emergency workers.

But Fire Department officials say access in emergencies is not a problem -- even if someone has to drive in from Orange County.

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