San Francisco's Fireboat Station 35 features modern design connected to historic charm
The floating fire station has drawn curious eyes from around the world, starting with its initial conception and extending to crew operations
Nearly three years after construction began on the San Francisco Fire Department’s new Fireboat Station 35, dubbed by some the "floating fire station," crews are now settling into the day-to-day operations as part of the city’s both oldest and newest firehouse.
The original firehouse was constructed in 1915 – more than 100 years before the idea for a new fireboat station was even conceived – and is a designated historical landmark, which means the existing structure can’t be updated or reconfigured with modern amenities.
Now, just beyond the original station sits – well, floats – a modern marvel that propels Station 35 into the 21st century.
Embracing what's new ...
The nearly $40 million project was completed after two years of construction atop a steel barge that was manufactured and transported from China to its final location at Pier 22½.
The barge and, thus, the station, rises and falls with the tides, protecting it from damage in the event of a natural disaster that raises sea waters to catastrophic levels. Such protection allows crews to continue to respond to emergencies.
“Looking at how earthquake-prone San Francisco is, as well as the potential climate issues, we wanted to make sure that we built a fire station to house our boats on the waterfront that would be able to accommodate those potential issues as they arise in the future,” said Lt. Jonathan Baxter, public information officer (PIO) for SFFD.
Because boats docked at the new station ride the tides in sync with the barge, there’s no longer a precarious gap or drop into a fireboat attached to a traditional pier, which Baxter said allows crews to answer calls quicker.
The new station also modernizes certain aspects of emergency response, he explained, with expanded communications and command center rooms, as well as upgraded technology for multi-jurisdiction communications during major events.
“We are a traditional fire department in a very large city,” Baxter said. “It’s only been in maybe the last 10 years that we started getting new fire stations. Having a station that was built in 1915 with crews who have been there for well over a decade and being put into something that’s modern and has all the latest items for the environmental impacts is pretty cool for us.”
The new floating Fireboat Station 35 will house the San Francisco Fire Department’s three fireboats and rescue watercraft, replacing the 105-year-old fire station on the Embarcadero. https://t.co/q4hCgYDF8C pic.twitter.com/XRcmXuT6vl— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) December 4, 2020
The amenities in the new station also offer a stark contrast to those found in the original, particularly in terms of comfort.
“The old station is either hot or cold, and it’s also very loud, because we sit almost underneath the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge,” said Shane Francisco, firehouse captain for Station 35. “You hear every motorcycle that gooses the throttle, you hear the waves slapping underneath the pier structure of the old house.”
Those problems are virtually eliminated in the new floating station.
“It’s quiet and climate controlled,” Francisco said. “I’m sleeping very well there when we get a chance to sleep.”
Certain things are taking some getting used to, though, like the amount of space crews now have within the new station.
“The kitchen was very small [in the old station]; we only had four drawers. Now we have like 40,” Francisco said, smiling. “We have a lot of empty drawers; we don’t know what to put in there.”
... and appreciating the historic
Despite the grandeur, comfort and novelty of working aboard the floating station, the original firehouse still holds a special place in the hearts of many members stationed at No. 35.
“The old house has tons of character, so there are some who don’t want to move into the new house,” Francisco said. “They want to keep their locker and mattress in the old house because of its charm.”
The original firehouse also continues to house the fire engine, which means that any response that calls for ground support could take longer to answer.
Residing within the new station “does extend our run time a little bit because it’s so far behind the old firehouse,” he said. Crews must walk out of the new station, up the catwalk and into the original station to manually open the apparatus bay doors.
“That’s been one of the problems [with the original firehouse], because it doesn’t work well for modern infrastructure,” Francisco said. The station’s assigned engine was custom built in 2002 to be narrower and shorter, which allows it to fit within the measurements of the existing structure.
Outfitting a 1915 building with up-to-date communication equipment has been a decades-long challenge for crews, as well.
“The historical landmark designation is a great thing, but on the other hand, it hampers us in preventing us from modernizing that facility,” Francisco said. “There are bundles of wires to deal with the modern infrastructure of dispatching systems, automatic lights and voice announcements in the station. These kinds of things are a little more difficult and becomes unsightly bundles of wire that are visible instead of being in the ceiling spaces and walls.”
An international draw
The new pier built for the floating station also incorporated a public viewing area to share the new building with the community.
“We’ve had visitors from Germany, London and Italy who came to visit San Francisco and wanted to see the new floating fire station and fire boat,” Baxter said. “That’s pretty cool to have that aspect.”
The international interest isn’t coming only from casual tourists, either.
“We’ve gotten a lot of questions from many fire departments throughout the entire world, not just here in the U.S., about this station,” Baxter said. “There’s a lot of eyes that are watching this.”
Learn more about Fireboat Station 35
The floating fire station: A look at SFFD's first-of-its-kind Fireboat Station No. 35
Just north of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, the new Fireboat Station No. 35 will serve the city with its three fireboats and rescue watercraft