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Fire Trek 

Why do San Francisco emergency workers live so far away?

Wednesday, Jun 21 1995
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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.

"It has been an issue, but it has never come to pass. We've never had a problem with it," Deputy Chief Slater says. "In 1989, we recalled everybody and everybody got here rapidly."

"I know where my priorities lie," says Fuhrman.
And the Police Department's Long says there's never been a problem to his knowledge with commuting officers reporting for work in times of trouble.

"There were no problems at all," Long says.
In fact, Fire Department officials claim that having firefighters live elsewhere might even be a good thing. If San Francisco is the epicenter of the next quake, then out-of-town firefighters will have an advantage, in that they won't be dead and/or buried. That's the argument, in any case.

So, if there is an emergency, here's where the firefighters and police officers will be coming into town from. The list is according to the numerical order of the ZIP codes: San Diego, Tustin, Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Daly City, El Granada, Half Moon Bay, La Honda, Los Altos, Millbrae, Montara, Moss Beach, Mountain View, Pacifica, Pescadero, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, South San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Sacramento, Palo Alto, San Mateo, Alameda, Danville, Alamo, Angwin, Antioch, Benicia, Clayton, Brentwood, Canyon, Concord, Pleasant Hill, Crockett, El Cerrito, Fairfield, Fremont, Hayward, Castro Valley, Hercules, Lafayette, Livermore, Martinez, Moraga, Napa, Newark, Oakley, Orinda, Pinole, Pittsburg, Pleasanton, Dublin, Rodeo, San Leandro, San Ramon, Suisin City, Union City, Pleasanton, Vallejo, Walnut Creek, Oakland, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, Richmond, El Sobrante, San Pablo, San Rafael, Greenbrae, Belvedere, Bolinas, Corte Madera, Rohnert Park, Fairfax, Cotati, Forest Knolls, Lagunitas, Larkspur, Marshall, Mill Valley, Novato, Penngrove, Petaluma, San Anselmo, San Geronimo, Sausalito, Woodacre, Boulder Creek, Milpitas, Cupertino, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Jose, Tracy, Turlock, Stockton, Murphys, Manteca, Merced, Modesto, Soulsbyville, Tuolumne, Santa Rosa, Camp Meeker, Cazadero, Cloverdale, Cobb, Forestville, Glen Ellen, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Kenwood, Lower Lake, Middletown, Monte Rio, Sebastopol, Sonoma, Willits, Kirkwood, Pleasant Grove, Windsor, Davis, Dixon, Elk Grove, Folsom, Vacaville, Volcano, Wilton, Alta, Nevada City, Olympic Valley, Red Bluff, Weaverville, and Truckee.

Now, we're not being provincial, but if firefighters and police officers are willing to drive three hours to get to work, these places must have attractions that San Francisco can't match. But what? To find out, we called around.

Willits: "There's lots of pine trees and oak trees, and I have gray squirrels and deer and jack rabbits and ferns," says Janel Baxter, of the Willits Chamber of Commerce. "There is a valley, a little, like, valley, and when it rains it actually fills up with water. But then it runs off."

Tustin: "Its motto is it's the city of flowers. No, sorry, the city of trees," says Cherie Yu, of the Tustin Chamber of Commerce. "There's, like, Old Town Tustin which has a, you know, more historic look, and the buildings are older, and then, like, if you're driving down Newport or, you know, one of the bigger streets, it's like, you know, any modern city."

Truckee: "Truckee is the coldest city in the United States, including Alaska. What really happens is at night it cools down significantly in the summer. It can get into the 30s, so our city has more of the 'coldest spot in the nation today' than any other," says Jordan Horowitz, of the Truckee Chamber of Commerce. Which the Donner Party found out about in short order. Donner Lake is in Truckee, but people don't dwell on it. "It's part of the history, but we don't go around eating each other," Horowitz says.

Guerneville: "We were a hippie colony for a long time. Then, a number of years ago, a large number of gay men moved into town and built nice homes and opened nice shops. Initial-ly, that gay influx brought a flamboyant kind of lifestyle that was not too familiar to our citizens, but as things change, as people get to know each other, as people get educated -- people get bonded," says Judy Boyce, executive director of the Guerneville Chamber of Commerce. "We have hippies, we have gays, we have straights, we have San Francisco firefighters, and we don't hold it against them."

Soulsbyville and Tuolumne: "We have towns that are old-time areas, like Sonora and Jamestown and Columbia, and yet on the outskirts we have convenient shopping like Wal-Mart, Pack-and-Save, Penny's, Longs," says Butch Newlin, of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce. "We're above the fog and below the snow; you can select an elevation to live at. You can have a little bit of snow or a lot of snow."

Mill Valley: "We have our wine and gourmet food tasting on the last Sunday in June where we have 70 or 80 wineries and some gourmet food places come. It's not free. It's $20 a ticket. But with that you get a free wine glass and a tray.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan

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