Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Chief Engineer John H. Alderson

--By Bert Brunwin

    In 1921 the last LAFD horse was turned out to pasture.  Several years later on September 2, 1923 a young man of twenty five was welcomed aboard as a member of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

    He became an officer with the rank of captain six years later in April of 1929.  He was captain of salvage 2 located at 644 S. Figueroa, now called salvage 28.  Capt had a young fireman working for him them that was hard working and industrious.  We not call that fireman Chief Ferguson, Division 1B.

    The captain of salvage 2 was a strapping man at 6'1" weighing in at 180 pounds.  They called him "Big John".  The nickname was placed for two reasons.  One reason was size and the second and most important was his ability to make a clear cut solid decision without hesitation.

    Cap was promoted to Battalion Chief October 16, 1935 and took over battalion 9B.  As a captain he used to chew "Mail Pouch" tobacco.  To satisfy protocol Chief John Alderson modified chewing tobacco and began to smoke those long black cigars.  Those cigars became his trademark and it was a genteel way to still get his "Mail Pouch".  The Chief has one of the most analytical minds that ever served the LAFD.  When "Big John" was asked a question , no matter how difficult, he would have a good answer.  He would pull out one of his cigars, strike a match, hesitate a minute, and light up.  After about three rolls of the cigar, he would come up with a good substantial answer.

    Chief Alderson traded in his gold horns of battalion chief for the five crossed horns of chief engineer April 1, 1940.  He served as our chief engineer ably and well.  He was well thought of by both officers and men of the LAFD.

    Cap Moran was graduated from the tower twenty-eight years ago and he remembers Chief Engineer Alderson well.  The chief walked with a military bearing his back straight as a ramrod.  He shook the hand of each rookie and congratulated them on their graduation as new firemen.  The chief has a sharp memory.  Eight years later Fireman Moran had been promoted to auto fireman.  At a brush fire the following message was heard.  "Tank 76 from Chief Engineer Alderson--"Moran, would you take your tank up to the south side of the fire, patrol that section and report back to me?"  The answer came back "roger, chief."

    Yes the Chief was proud of the LAFD and spent many many tiring hours towards improvements of the department.  He as chief engineer and Parker as chief of  police were the cornerstones in the formation of the Fire and Police Protective League.  "Big John" served as president of the league in 1933, 1934, 1936, and 1938.

    He pioneered raising the standards of fire department equipment and personnel.  He was the father of the modern fire department as we know it today.

    The chief served as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1950.  During that time he set the wheels going at the University of Southern California.  He made it possible for a fireman in a regular four year college course to graduate with a B.A. degree in Fire Science.  A second course was set up and then a fireman could also earn a degree in Fire Administration.

    Another first was the use of resuscitations on physical rescues.  The LAFD, under the chief, was the first major fire department in the nation to use resuscitators.

    He was and is proud of both the department and its personnel.

    Here is a little something for men just coming on the Los Angeles City Fire Department to think about.  If a probationary fireman receives a grade of (1) on a specific quality it means that he is an outstanding man and will prove to be a credit to the LAFD.  If such a rookie fireman receives a (1) and adds just a small portion of the stature and dignity to the department that Chief Alderson did, he will truly have earned his (1).

    Chief Engineer Alderson has two kinds of friends.  One group is made up of men who know and respect him because they have worked for him during the 15 years that he was chief (April 1, 1940 through December 29, 1955).  The second group of men know him as "Big John" Alderson, a legend in his own time.

    In January I went down to Central for my physical.  I had heard the chief was in the hospital and I checked with the nurse on duty.  She said:  "sure, he can have visitors.  He is down the hall in room 227."  I belong to that second group of friends.  I went on down to his room and we had a good visit.

    The nurse said the chief can have visitors any time so drop in and say howdy to a fine gentleman and a firemen's fireman.

This article appeared in the March, 1969 issue of the FIREMAN'S GRAPEVINE.

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