President of the LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society
Respected, revered and honored, retired LAFD Captain I James Finn, who’s now president of the LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society is one of our LAFD legends. Our LAFD Legacy series is shining a spotlight on members of the LAFD who are a part of a history of excellence. Living up to the high standards and core values of the L.A. City Fire Department: Service, professionalism, integrity, respect, innovation and trust, James leads with passion and exemplary performance. He’s been honored for his service, served in the Marine Corps, is a family man from Los Angeles and to most, he’s Jim. Just call him Jim. When you see him walk through the museum, his face lights up with wonder and awe. We’re taking you on his amazing journey, reliving amazing moments and major disasters throughout Los Angeles history. Jim Finn’s story is L.A.’s story.
Retired Captain I James Finn’s Legacy: A history of service
James was born in 1946 and joined the LAFD in 1968, where he served for more than 40 years. He volunteered to serve on the historical society in 1998. According to the City Employees Club of Los Angeles, Live!, Jim has “volunteered countless service hours to various causes…was an LAFD mentor for children at risk, and in 2004 was chosen as volunteer of the year for the LAFD Historical Society….and is involved with ‘friends of fire station 29’ located on Wilshire Blvd.”
LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society: Best kept secret in Hollywood
“Initially what inspired me was the history of the department and the apparatus I wanted to display here,” says Jim.
But there’s so much more to the museum than only the artifacts and the apparatus. The retired captain describes his journey and what impacted him the most, “A teletype notice came out in 1998 and they were looking for volunteers and that appealed to me. So, I started going to the meetings and less than three years later I got elected to the board of directors as vice president; served in that capacity for almost eight years, then [was] elected president in January of 2009 and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. “
When people visit the Museum, it excites him as much as the visitors! “The first reaction we get –‘Boy! We didn’t even know this was here!’ So, we call ourselves the best kept secret in Hollywood. We have lots of repeats visitors that bring their kids in, some of them come week after week.”
The museum officially opened at the old, former LAFD Fire Station 27 in Hollywood in 2001.
His enthusiasm for the job is heartfelt and there are no words to explain how important the memorial is to our legacy hero.
The importance of the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Jim Finn’s words
“So, I think initially my focus was on the apparatus and the restoration of that and the history of our fire department, but after Liz Bamattre who was the wife of the fire chief (William Bamattre) got to push for a memorial for fallen firefighters, that took center stage for me. Liz wanted to create a memorial space; we’d been a department over 100 to 112 years. We had no memorial for our fallen firefighters.”
“When I started the project of putting together, we never had a good list of who died in the line of duty. And when I started working on it in 2004, that’s when we started building it, I used the [Los Angeles Firemen’s] Relief Association as my base of operations and Ted Aquaro was the secretary then. I asked him ‘How many people die in the line of duty every year? Do you know?’ He said ‘Oh maybe two.’ And so, I started off and did research and then was in 2004 and when I finished up and got all of the names it was right at two people per year. We’ve been a paid department for 136 years.”
LAFD firefighters who died in the line of duty: 277 fallen firefighters
As of Fall 2022, “We have 277 names on the wall so, it has held steady throughout our history. Roughly two people a year die in the line of duty,” says Jim.
“This memorial was designed as two-sided with the hope to never get to the other side. But three names are on the back now. Some 274 on front, three on the back. A little about what it shows, a fire scene. If you look at most firefighter memorials, they’re shown wearing face pieces, they don’t need to deal with gender and ethnicity. We wanted to show it with all varying faces, genders, that is the reason is why our memorial doesn’t have face pieces on it.”
“We created the statues that are out front of the memorial and had those built, we had to borrow money to have those built, we were fairly a new organization, we didn’t have a big membership base and that was over a quarter of a million dollars of statue. We borrowed the money for that.”
Jim says initially they thought it would cost about $500,000 to build the memorial. And, with the help of volunteers and a lot of fundraising, they got the money. Jim says, “So I’m proud to say, that the result as it sits out there right now, instead of $500,000, is $2.6 million we raised and spent on that memorial!”
The impact of the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial
“This means everything to me,” an emotional Jim says about the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial. “This is the legacy for people who gave everything to protect citizens of Los Angeles. It’s just a part of my soul.”
We walked through the museum with Jim and he beamed with enthusiasm talking about everything. The apparatus, the artifacts such as helmets, turnouts, vintage articles and paintings. We were amazed at the rich LAFD movie history and its connection to cinema.
Rooms dedicated to remembering the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and so much more.
After our tour of the LAFD Museum we wanted to find out more about Jim and what he’s witnessed over the years working as a firefighter. It is astonishing.
Learn more about the Fallen Firefighters Memorial
LAFD responding to disasters in Los Angeles: Sylmar Earthquake 1971
For many people of a younger generation, they remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake. When we asked him the question, “Did you work that one?” Guess what he said?
“Earthquake of ‘94 yup. But I went through two! I was actually at the Sylmar earthquake in ‘71! In that one…I was not working that morning when it happened, I was going into work. I went in and everybody was gone. I was trying to find out where they were. It was the Coldwater signal office. We were sent to a structure fire, there was nothing there, no rigs there. The engine came back. And then we started evacuating patients at Olive View Hospital. Olive View was a brand-new hospital in Sylmar then, a county facility. Fire station 90 was the support team for helicopters. We transport patients, when we pulled up to the ¼ mile driveway, we get part way up and there’s a car port with ambulances. It was down on 16 ambulances, their whole fleet was out of service. And there was one attendant that was killed when it came down.”
“So, we passed that, got to the hospital; smoke towers where stairways, built on the outside of a building for fire escape…three or four of those fell like a pencil, falling over into the yard. And we’re looking into find the building from the outside, we’re looking in at each floor. That was significant thing to me. We evacuated a bunch of patients from there. That was the Sylmar Earthquake.”
Northridge Earthquake 1994
“The Northridge Earthquake which I live about one mile and half from the epicenter. I was at fire station 29, it knocked me out of bed and, of course, pitch black. Nothing, so we got up and our light force was gone to another station. There was no power, you had to manually pull doors open to get rigs outside and do a check in and report everything was ok at the station, then drive through the district and all that. And then they moved us to the Valley. When I was sitting on the apron, doing a radio check in, I was in West L.A., a building had pancaked down. So, I figured that was where epicenter was. I heard Chief Anthony on the radio, he just traversed the Valley on the 101 Freeway and can see at least 40 fires burning. I said ‘oh, that’s not good.’ So, they moved us to the Valley. We ended up getting assigned to Fire Station 70 they had gone out to Northridge Meadows apartment (complex).”
Simi Valley Fires 2003
“We went to a lot of brushfires out of the city…One of them, Simi Valley, in 2003, had a fire out there Simi and Moorpark involved and one place…the Humming Bird Nest Ranch, we actually got assigned in there. The fire coming through there, the guy that owned it was there and he just spent $150,000 on landscaping, trees and stuff he had put in. They’re up against brush.
Working for L.A. City we didn’t do backfiring, or firing out. Just not something we did. I can’t remember who made the call, but we had too much of this unburned brush around, the new landscaping he put in, so we started doing it! And it worked great,” he says. “The owner was extremely happy about that, he asked us to stay for dinner! He goes out to Green Acres in Simi Valley and buys us tri tip sandwiches, for the whole strike team! I mean there are 50 people there. He was extremely happy about what we did.”
L.A. Riots 1992: firefighters attacked
“Well, the 1992 riots…I was on duty that day worked all but 12 hours of 5 days. We left our station and were sent to bus yard which was our base and left there in a tactical task force, which is 3 engines and a battalion chief. We got attacked and or assaulted on our first incident. We went from one incident to another all night long. I guess it seemed exciting at first, then got dull and routine by six-thirty in the morning.
That was our first chance to get something to eat, we did that, got back to work, got relived after noon time that day, I went back to my station filled our reports for what we had done that day, left at 5:30pm at night went home to sleep, got to sleep, and back to work at six the next morning, I was there for the next three days and it was a long tour.”
Retired LAFD Captain I Jim Finn: first time in jeopardy
“I think something that stands out in my mind, the first time in my career, I felt in jeopardy, but at the time didn’t know what was going on. There was fire in a swimming pool manufacturing company and a large fire in a big commercial building.” (Located on, Irwin Street in Van Nuys just west of Sepulveda, near the 405 Freeway).
“With a panelized roof on it. Which is a light weight constructed roof. We were operating a two and a half line inside, I was on the nozzle, my captain, was behind me. And we were advancing our line. And pretty soon I couldn’t control it anymore.”
“I started shutting down the nozzle because I was going backwards, and I didn’t know why, finally I had to shut all the way off, going backwards on engine com fire station 90. People from truck company pulling us back and what had happened, they watched it happen, was an air conditioning or heating unit, some type of machinery on roof, fell through the roof caught in piping and if it had caught on that it would have crushed us!”
By Charles Stewart
The softer side of Jim
By Marlene Casillas
Jim is a big part of another LAFD Legacy story that involves an incredible and beloved Dalmatian. Wilshire the Fire Dog earned a place in our LAFD family back in 2006, when a little girl took him to Fire Station 29 and begged them to save the young Dalmatian from the dreaded and uncertain fate of the animal shelter. It didn’t take long for “Wil,” as he was affectionately called, to find his purpose, teaming with Firefighter, now Captain, Ryan Penrod for a lifetime of important service, teaching kids and the entire community fire safety lessons, and raising invaluable awareness and a wealth of donations for numerous charities.
Jim Finn was Captain I at Fire Station 29 when the crew decided to adopt Wilshire. They became instant buddies, with Wilshire sleeping at Jim’s feet under the desk in the front office until he was too big to fit. Wilshire quickly learned that he would be treated with a cookie when Jim returned from his morning walk, and if he had to wait too long, he would remind Jim with a paw on his leg that he deserved a treat for waiting so patiently! Once he started learning his fire safety routines, Wilshire would have to perform before receiving his morning treat. “Wilshire holds a special place in our family, and his picture remains prominently posted on our home refrigerator door,” Jim says.
Eight million stories in the naked city
Straight from his heart and soul Jim simply wants you to experience the amazing facts about our LAFD heroes, explore historic apparatus, listen to astonishing stories and relive the amazing past of the L.A. City Fire Department.
“Come on out here and see us, see what we’re all about!” he says. “ See what the life of a firefighter is like, we can explain all that to you…I don’t know if you remember the old TV show ‘The Naked City,’ it was a police show from Hollywood. And, they started off by saying “there are eight million stories in the naked city, this is one of them.” Well, we’re kind of like that, there are eight million stories in this place.”
By Charles Stewart
For more information about the museum visit lafdmuseum.org