Rescues on the Rise

Incidents of pets trapped along the cliffs of Fort Funston are on the rise, and their time-consuming rescues can pull vital San Francisco Fire Department resources away from other emergencies.

Incidents of pets trapped along the cliffs of Fort Funston are on the rise.
Incidents of pets trapped along the cliffs of Fort Funston are on the rise.

Kate Lavin and three friends enjoyed a breezy picnic atop the cliffs of San Francisco’s Fort Funston on an October afternoon in 2011. Lavin’s three-year-old terrier-mix Foxie bounced around the group and zipped in and out of the sand dunes that populate the popular ocean-side state park. Suddenly, Lavin couldn’t spot Foxie anymore. Her dog had disappeared.

Foxie was the victim of an all too common safety issue that increasingly plagues this park and others like it. This past January, a Chihuahua mix named Duck spent 26 hours trapped on a Fort Funston cliff, one of the many pets that find themselves trapped; unable to climb back up and too scared to continue straight down to the beach and crashing waves of the Pacific below.

“Amazingly I saw (Foxie) and I say amazingly because she’s the exact same color as the rocks,” Lavin said.

A first responder pulls Foxie from the cliffs of Fort Funston in San Francisco.
Kate Lavin’s dog Foxie is rescued from the cliffs of Fort Funston in San Francisco.

Before one of Lavin’s friends had a chance to locate a park ranger, San Francisco fire trucks were on scene, likely from SFFD Station 19, located just down the road in the Park Merced neighborhood. Station 19 is one of two dedicated cliff rescue stations in the city and generally speaking, Fort Funston cliff rescues are their purview.

Lavin suspects someone down on the beach spotted Foxie in distress and contacted 9-1-1. With impressive speed, rescue crews arrived and one fire fighter rappelled down the cliff while another five or so coordinated the rescue from above.

“Oh yeah, it was quite the thing,” Lavin said.

According to San Francisco Fire Department data, cliff rescues are on a sharp rise. In 2003, the department reported three rescues. In 2017, they reported 41. According to Station 19’s fire fighters, that rise is due in large part to Fort Funston’s increasing popularity with tourists and a growing number of young, pet-owning San Franciscans.

The San Francisco Fire Department is responsible for actual rescues but as Fort Funston is federal property, its laws are enforced by park police and National Park Service Rangers. In Lavin’s case, a park ranger appeared at some point during Foxie’s rescue and handed her a written citation, which included a fine of what Lavin recalls as around $400.

“The park ranger guy wasn’t even there when the fire department showed up, so I don’t really know what they were charging me for. They didn’t have any part off the cliff rescue,” Lavin said.

Typically, fines are issued because Fort Funston has a loosely enforced rule that dog owners must have their pets on a leash or under “voice command.” That voice command should include keeping one’s dog from going over a cliff. For her part, Lavin had no idea she could be fined by the federal government if her dog needed rescue.

When her citation notice arrived in the mail, Lavin went to the Federal Building in downtown San Francisco and protested the fine. A federal employee was on-hand to assist with the process and Lavin negotiated the fine down to what she recalls to be $200. Typically, citations like the one Lavin received include a $275 fine, not $400 — although Lavin is quick to note that her incident happened several years ago, it was pretty traumatic and some of the details may have been lost to her over time.

While they’re respectful of the human-pet relationship, the San Francisco Fire Department is not rescuing dogs stranded on cliffs to save the dog’s life. The real reason resources are employed to rescue a dog is because often times, a pet’s owner will attempt to rescue their dog themselves. It’s an instinct Lavin understands.

“At first when I saw her down there, I tried to go down and get her and then I realized it was probably going to end in me falling,” Lavin said.

One animal victim is typically an easier and safer rescue than that of an animal and human victim. (There are exceptions. The SFFD once had to rescue a cliff-clutching horse.) A dog rescue usually takes less time and thus, consumes fewer resources from the department. If Station 19 is deployed to a cliff rescue and another emergency erupts elsewhere, the SFFD response is going to be delayed. And as the fire fighters of Station 19 pointed out, a fire doubles in size every minute — so even small delays can spell real disaster when it comes to fighting fires.

An off-leash dog is perched next to a sign warning of the cliff-side danger.
Off-leash dogs can easily fall from the cliffs at Fort Funston in San Francisco.
Junaid Ackroyd

A Fort Funston cliff rescue can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on how easy it is for rescue crews to find the victim, the weather, the time of day or night, and the nature of the rescue. Sometimes fire fighters rappel down to the victim (human or animal,) other times a rescue from the beach is the best option. In extreme cases, a Napa County Sheriff’s helicopter is called to assist with a rescue as a last resort. And perhaps in the future, the SFFD will use drones to help locate victims and determine the best course of rescue. The department is one of three city agencies that have been approved to test the use of drones in coastal rescues.

San Francisco Fire Department Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter is on a mission to educate the public about the need for safety along San Francisco popular cliffs, namely Fort Funston and Lands End. While rescue photos garner hundreds of “likes” on social media, crews are taking a serious risk every time they venture over the edge of a cliff, and they’re utilizing resources on a preventable rescue that might be needed elsewhere. A dog rescue from a cliff isn’t as adorable as it appears hours later on the local news.

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Baxter and his team have recently produced pamphlets to educate the public about safety along San Francisco’s cliffs and shores. And they’re working with the Federal National Park System to develop better signage along the cliff of Fort Funston and Lands End, especially at known hot spots where dogs (and people) are most frequently in need of rescue.

The SFFD has also partnered with departments in other parts of California, including Sacramento Fire, Stockton Fire and El Dorado County fire to educate residents in those regions about the dangers of San Francisco’s coastal areas.

“The majority of our rescues are not San Franciscans. The majority of our rescues are people visiting from outside San Francisco with their dogs,” said Baxter.

For their part, San Francisco Fire Department’s cliff rescue crews aren’t interested in getting people in trouble — their goal is to get walkers and pet-owners educated to help prevent the need for cliff side rescues. Like Lavin, most victims aren’t aware that a quick distraction could result in a beloved pet requiring a dramatic cliff rescue.

“I hope I don’t look like an irresponsible dog owner,” said Lavin. “It was a freak accident.”

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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