Structures in San Francisco circa 1889 bear similarities to today, but with key differences. The City’s oldest building, Mission Dolores, looked much as it does today, yes, but The City’s two iconic bridges were half a century away from fruition. Market Street already ran at an odd diagonal, but horse-drawn carriages roamed where Ubers now swarm.
And the fire alarms inside The City’s century-ago buildings? They were angular metal boxes with pull strings, ready at a moment’s notice to dot-dot-dot out morse code and trip The City’s “master box.” Firefighters would then come galloping.
Those alarms were installed and maintained by The Pacific Auxiliary Fire Alarm Company and, in an echo of the past, that same 130-year-old outfit — San Francisco born and bred — is now preparing to install smoke detectors in the new home of the Golden State Warriors, Chase Arena.
Of course, these modern smoke detectors will bear little similarity to the metal boxes with rings on pull-strings from San Francisco’s early days.
At a tour of the fire alarm company’s offices in San Francisco’s southeast in early March, CEO Doug Shackley picked up one of the older, iconic metal fire alarms and reflected on the change in tech over the last century.
“It used to be a lot of wires and relays,” Shackley said. “Now it’s computers.”
To wit: Among Chase Arena’s smoke detectors will be modern contraptions called “intelligent single-ended reflective imaging beam detectors.”
While more than 1,000 traditional smoke detectors will be placed throughout the arena, the 18-or-so specially designed imaging beam detectors for the wide open center of the arena will be able to detect smoke from fire, while ignoring smoke caused by the whiz-bang pyrotechnics fired off to honor the Warriors’ star players.
Derek Shackley, Doug’s son and general manager of the company, said a combination of UV light and other sensors helps differentiate between differing types of smoke.
Those imaging beam detectors hung at either side of the Bayshore offices, blinking as two generations of Shackleys spoke. The business moved to the Southeast decades after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed their first location and much of their earliest records. And it wasn’t until changing fire codes prompted more complex smoke detectors that the alarm company began hiring tech wizards capable of making modern smoke alarms in earnest.
“This is our engineering department,” Shackley said, sweeping his arm behind him at rows of cubicles with piles of rolled-up blueprints on their desks. “It didn’t exist until 1993.”
While Shackley’s team toils away on modern smoke detectors, they’re surrounded by history. The younger Shackley pointed out a decades-old, tall gray machine that used to stand in San Francisco General Hospital. When smoke alarms fired off, its “code wheel” would spin, and tap-out smoke locations on a sheet of paper on a roll.
But these aren’t just museum pieces. The company also maintains the fewer than 30 remaining “pull box” fire alarms across San Francisco, which yes, still work, despite utilizing technology dating back to The City’s horse-and-buggy days.
Some are in older Muni yards, others at hospitals. Another sits, ready to be pulled into action, at the University of the Pacific on Fifth Street downtown.
The San Francisco Fire Department said some of those old-style pull box alarms came into play in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when other methods of communication failed.
The Warriors told me they’re grateful to have a company with a mind to history installing their modern smoke-detection system.
“The Warriors have been fortunate to have Pacific Auxiliary Fire Alarm as Chase Center’s design-build fire alarm subcontractor,” said Peter Bryan, Warriors vice president for construction and development, in a statement.
“This legendary company brings more than a century of San Francisco experience to our team, and is expert at working collaboratively with The City to create a safe, complete system, while dealing with the complexities of a modern sports and entertainment venue,” he said.
Shackley’s fire alarm company brings something to the table few others can: An eye to San Francisco’s firefighting history, while helping build its future history, too.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.