Charles F. Otterson distinguished himself not only as the first Napa Fire Department Chief, but he also held the longest tenure at that post. During those 37 years, Otterson transformed the local fire department into a modern agency.
Otterson arrived in Napa prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This is the time-frame of the following local lore about how Otterson became Napa’s fire chief.
As the story goes, Otterson came upon the scene of a blaze and noticed the fire crew struggling with the fire apparatus. He purportedly stepped in to help. Applying his mechanical know-how, Otterson successfully remedied the problem. He proceeded to help put out that blaze. So impressed and grateful, those firefighters petitioned Napa’s mayor, John Fuller, to appoint Otterson as Napa’s first fire chief.
Whether this story is true or otherwise, Otterson was appointed as fire chief by Fuller. Otterson served in that capacity during the administration of eight Napa City mayors. While performing his fire chief duties, Otterson was also the Napa Police Department Chief for a number of years.
Regarding his professional accomplishments, a 1943 Napa Journal article said, “When a fire chief he took over the Napa Fire Department it was housed in the old engine house on Second street (near School Street) and was equipped with horse-drawn fire engines. His energy was largely responsible for the purpose of new and modern motor-driven equipment and for the development of the department into one of the best of the state.”
Two early 1900s articles substantiate this point. A 1913 Journal article said, “The fame of the Napa Fire Department’s chemical auto and its efficiency in general has spread abroad.” Apparently, following this equipment’s purchase in about 1911, and its successful implementation by the local agency, many California towns of similar size to Napa inquired about the device’s effectiveness. According to the newspaper, Otterson gladly answered those numerous inquiries.
In addition to providing that information, Otterson shared details about Napa’s fire protection strategy. He advised those communities to divide their towns into numbered fire sections as Napa had done. The plan established, after receiving a report, the telephone operator would press the alarm activation key the appropriate number of times to identify the section number, such as three times for Section 3. As a result, not only would the fire alarm ring, so would every phone in Napa. The Journal added, “In this way, every house that had a phone is an alarm box.”
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In 1916, a Napa Register headline announced another of Otterson’s fire-fighting advancements. It said, “New Life Saving Device”...the “Kirker-Bender Fire Escape” installed at Napa High School. It continued, “The device is a tape on which, in case of fire, the students can slide to the ground in safety.” It added, “Through the center of this fire escape a water tower is run, equipped for coupling to the fire engine at the ground end, and for a turret-nozzle at the top.”
That system had been unveiled to the public under Otterson’s supervision. The Register added, “It was put in actual use by the high school pupils, who showed great courage and agility, the young ladies especially distinguished themselves.”
Although fire protection and safety were a priority, fighting fires was paramount to Otterson. But one 1921 blaze was very personal to him. The Register headline said, “Blaze at Fire Chief Otterson’s Home.” Apparently, Otterson’s wife, Emma, received a call from a neighbor informing Emma of smoke pouring out of a window. The Register continued, “When she got upstairs and opened the door, the inside of the room was a veritable furnace.” It added, “As the dwelling is right next to the fire house, it did not take long for the firemen to reach the scene and subdue the flames.”
This quick response was quite fortunate as the fire was rapidly growing. It had already destroyed the contents of the room and severely scorched the walls. The newspaper also noted, that fire of unknown cause resulted in about $500 in damages. Also, the room was rented to a tenant.
Otterson served Napans as their fire chief for about another 26 years after that blaze. But, after enduring failing health for several years, Otterson resigned on Jan. 1, 1943. He subsequently passed away on Sept. 6, 1943 at age 75.
According to the Journal, his funeral was “an impressive tribute.” The article also provided a summary of his life prior to arriving in Napa. Otterson, an avid fisherman, was born in San Francisco on Feb. 18, 1868. However, he lived most of his youth in Vallejo. His earlier jobs took him to Washington state where he met and married Emma Mass. They returned to San Francisco with their son Andrew so Otterson could work in the Union Railroad construction department.
Shortly thereafter, he was hired by the Napa Valley, electric, Railroad company in 1906. With that job, Charles, Emma, Andrew and Mollie, their daughter, moved to Napa.