Skip to content

'When Students Fought Fires'

For almost a century, it was the hottest job on campus.

News Service

DOWN IN FLAMES: Though students and pros struggled to save it, Fiji House burned to the ground in 1960, evoking a scene from Gone with the Wind.

View photo album >>

By Theresa Johnston

Clinging to the top of a swaying fire ladder wasn’t exactly what Bill Bamattre had in mind when he first walked into the Stanford student employment office. True, his freshman dishwashing job in the steaming basement of Tresidder Union had been a real drag, and he was looking for a new work-study assignment to help pay his tuition, room and board. But this was 1971: the campus was under siege from antiwar protesters and arsonists, and Stanford needed more firefighters to supplement its regular force. So now here he was—a 19-year-old poli sci major from Los Angeles with barely a week’s training—pointing a three-inch-diameter hose at a major fire that threatened to engulf the Palo Alto High School gymnasium. “The ladder was somewhere around 50 feet high, but it seemed like 500,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, yet everybody just assumed I was a seasoned firefighter. Today the risk managers would cringe.”

As it turned out, Bamattre so loved living and working at the Stanford fire station that he eventually axed his law school plans and earned a master’s in public administration. Today he’s known as Chief Bamattre, 50-year-old head of the sprawling Los Angeles Fire Department, with 3,250 uniformed and 350 non-uniformed employees. In retrospect, the 1974 grad says Stanford was the best training ground a fire chief could have: a residential campus flanked by major highways, with a large, undeveloped brush area, occasional chemical spills and frequent medical calls ranging from bike accidents to heat prostration. “A lot of freshmen living in the dorms were short on practical life experiences,” he adds. “Living at the Stanford firehouse, I had the opportunity to blend my classroom education with true life.”

Over nearly a century—until Stanford’s fire department merged with Palo Alto’s in 1976—perhaps a thousand students worked as part-time campus firefighters, without major incident. In exchange, they received sleeping quarters, laundry service, monthly stipends and the occasional charred firehouse steak. A handful, like Bamattre, decided to make firefighting their life’s work. Others went on to become engineers, lawyers, physicians and business owners. In any case, life in the firehouse was a memorable Farm experience—and a maturing one. “It was a neat place,” recalls Don Ross Peterson, ’58, who recently closed up his Sacramento-area Hallmark store after 40 years in the greeting card business. “There was a lot of discipline involved in it. And it really taught you to get along with people in close quarters, that’s for sure.”

Stanford's colorful firefighting history dates back to 1883, when founder Leland Stanford sent to Boston for a hand-drawn pumper to protect his celebrated racing stables and mansion. Student volunteers frequently helped douse fires during the University’s early years, and by 1904, when Stanford built its first permanent fire station (the wood-framed Fire Truck House on Santa Teresa Street), there were five student firefighters living on-call in the upstairs bunkhouse. By the 1930s, a dozen of them were working there under the direction of a paid professional named Robert Dugan, a 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound veteran of the San Francisco force who had distinguished himself in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

In those days—before major liability concerns and government regulations—recruitment was casual and almost entirely by word of mouth. If a young man had a friend working at the firehouse and could present a manly bicep, he got the nod. Many of the students who came to Dugan during the Depression were hurting financially, and it’s said that during off hours he treated them like sons. But when it came to training and preparedness, he ran his station on a strictly professional basis, right down to the boots, pants and suspenders kept neatly at the foot of each bunk. As Chris Baldo, ’36, recalled in a 1930s article for the Stanford Alumnus, regular practice took place on Sunday afternoons, when Dugan would turn the young men loose on a five-story wooden tower (used to dry out hoses) behind the firehouse for an exhausting session of ladder climbing, hose pulling and rescue work. The day would end with an exam: Dugan would slip off to some undisclosed site on campus, pull an alarm cord and then check his watch to see how quickly the students could respond.

Student firefighters typically worked one of two shifts. During daylight hours, those on duty could attend classes and study at the library, as long as they kept one ear open. If they heard the tremendous “whonk” of the coded campus fire horn (two short blasts, a pause, and three long ones would mean the fire was near Box 23), they would scoop up their books and dash to the station or the fire scene, whichever was closer. If a call came at night, the bunkhouse lights would blaze on automatically to the clanging of a 12-inch gong, and the firefighters would be dressed and sliding down the polished brass pole within 30 seconds.

Hardened by their physical workouts, the students eventually became a fighting force on the athletic field, too. Early ’40s editions of the Stanford Daily report that the boys of “Firehouse 14” were hot competitors against much larger fraternities in intramural sports, particularly touch football and basketball. The trophies they won are on display in the new campus fire station on Serra Street. “We really put the firehouse on the Stanford map,” recalled football star Monte Pfyl, ’41, who fought fires with his twin brother, Frank, ’41, and later wrote an unpublished memoir of his days on the force. “Dugan would tell us, ‘If you go out there to play, either win or don’t come back.’”

Dugan's successors, Arden Hatley and John Marston, put more professionals on the payroll, and by the early 1960s, the firehouse dormitory was crammed with 14 students and 22 “paid men,” their bunks separated by a row of green metal lockers. The close quarters—along with an undercurrent of class tension between the blue-collar pros and upwardly mobile students—led to some soggy horseplay. Paul DeYoung, ’71, now an international programs administrator at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says it wasn’t unusual for mischievous older guys to wake snoring students by sticking wet mops in their faces. Another favorite prank involved launching water balloons from the back of a pickup with slingshots fashioned of surgical tubing. As veteran Stanford/Palo Alto fireman Ron Adler recalls, “There used to be dances at Tresidder on Friday or Saturday nights, so the student firefighters would get behind the station with these huge balloons and shoot them over the firehouse and over the street.” To sharpen their aim, “they’d have one guy at the dance with a two-way fireman’s radio, and he’d be whispering to the others, ‘You gotta go a couple clicks to the left [or right].’ ”

Most of the time, the rivalry between the paid men and the students was played out on the basketball and volleyball courts behind the station. But as the Vietnam War heated up, tensions in the firehouse occasionally threatened to boil over. Some student firefighters sympathized with the antiwar movement, whereas many of the pros were military veterans who detested the longhaired protesters. But both the amateurs and the pros knew they had to work together—particularly when the campus exploded in a string of suspicious conflagrations. From 1968 through 1972, Stanford was the scene of a numbing series of bomb threats and at least five major arson fires, including attacks on President Wallace Sterling’s office, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Naval ROTC building, Junipero House in Wilbur Hall (site of frequent Black Student Union meetings) and a fire of puzzling origin at the Chicano student house. The largest fire, a million-dollar blaze that gutted the upper east floors and central attic of Encina Hall in June 1972, was so intense it melted the plastic nozzles on the fire hoses.

“The campus was getting burned, and we were literally caught in the middle,” says former Student Firefighter Association president William Boller, ’68, MBA ’71, now a vice president of Agilent Technologies in Palo Alto. At one point, he became so concerned about the safety of the pros manning the Stanford bomb squad that he invented a defusing device, called the Boller Blast Tube, as his project in a mechanical engineering class. He vividly remembers one night at the height of the situation, when hundreds of riot police were brought in from throughout the Bay Area to deal with protesters who were trashing the Bookstore. Trouble was, the cops had no idea how to get to White Plaza—so several of them asked the frightened young firefighter to get behind the wheel of a squad car and drive them into the crowd. Boller’s friend Nick Marinaro, ’72, now a deputy fire chief in the Palo Alto Fire Department, remembers ducking rocks thrown by the protesters. “It was a scary situation,” Marinaro recalls. “But at least we had helmets. We were better protected than the cops.”

Under the direction of Fire Chief Frank Jurian, living conditions for both students and professionals improved in the early 1970s after the opening of a larger station on Serra Street. The comfortable new facility—featuring a pool table donated by a grateful professor who’d been resuscitated after a heart attack, a tv lounge and free double rooms for students—made firefighting one of the most prized work-study tickets on campus. Recruitment, formerly handled through the old-boy network, increasingly was tied to financial need, and the pay improved dramatically—from around $25 a month in the ’50s and ’60s to more than $200 in the ’70s. That was enough to put a major dent in tuition bills or even pay them off entirely if students stayed on during the summers to earn professional wages.

In the fall of 1975, the Stanford Fire Department signed up its first and only female student firefighter, Linda Beth Bammann, ’78 (now chief risk-management officer at BankOne in Chicago). By that time, however, student firefighting on the Farm was nearing its end. The campus had grown more complex, with more people, more traffic and more buildings housing lab chemicals that required specialized firefighting training. Just one year after Bammann’s appointment, in a move projected to save millions of dollars, Stanford placed all of its equipment, trucks and professional firefighters under the administration of the City of Palo Alto. Student firefighters were not part of the deal.

These days, when firehouse alumni return to the Farm, many of them stop by the new station to have a look around and to chat with their old friends, the veteran professionals. Deputy Chief Marinaro, who still works there, guesses that about 20 percent of the students he worked with just saw it as another campus job. The rest, he says, genuinely loved the experience and were grateful for it.

Pulling out a faded color snapshot, Marinaro points to and names each of the students he worked with, as if they were his brothers. “This guy runs a plywood business in South America now,” he says of a smiling young fellow sitting on the fire truck. “This one is a superior court judge in Fresno, and this one is a Stanford anesthesiologist. He’s a mechanical engineer who started with Apple, and he’s a minister in Oregon. . . .” Marinaro’s friend, Chief Bamattre of the L.A. Fire Department, knows the feeling. Working at the Stanford firehouse, he says, “was almost like living with a family while going to school.” In his case, it also was the high-flying chance of a lifetime.

Theresa Johnston, ’83, is a Palo Alto writer and a frequent contributor to Stanford. She was assisted by Karen Bartholomew, ’71, whose father, Robert, was a professional Stanford firefighter from 1961 to 1976.

Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!