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From the Archives: Safety & Security at Skywalker Ranch

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 1996 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-03-25
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Originally published in our Sept/Oct 1996 issue.

It's a small community, in a rural corner of Marin County, Northern California.  A stopover on the way from Hollywood to Alderaan. 

Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, Lando Calrissian, Yoda, they all stopped off here.  This is the way-station between imagination and illusion, the all-important planning terminal where fanciful creations of the mind are mapped out and prepared for manufacture, and where the makings of movie magic are prepared for life through the science of technology, and where they will stop again to have their finishing touches applied on the way from Silicon Valley to silver screen.

Skywalker Ranch is the headquarters of Lucasfilm, the movie company established by George Lucas, creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  The establishment is a pre- and post-production facility for motion picture, television and commercial production.  There are no sound stages, movie sets or camera cranes -- no filming is done here.  The facility was designed for story conferencing, research and development, editing, and sound recording.

Established in 1979 on the site of a former dairy ranch in the remote hills of western Marin, Skywalker is now home to nearly 300 employees.  "The Ranch was designed to promote creativity for film and television production," said Tom Forster, Ranch Manager since 1989.  "It was George's hope that people in the industry could come here, be left alone, quietly be able to do their work, be protected and sheltered, talk to other people in their industry, and complete their work successfully."


Unlike the huge, soundstage-saturated conclaves of Hollywood, the structures at Skywalker resemble plantation homes more than corporate offices.  Designed by Lucas himself, the Main House, housing administrative offices and a research library, resembles a Victorian mansion, while the brick-sided Technical Building, occupied by scoring stages, digital editing systems, and THX Sound facilities, resembles a 1930s Winery.  Its small vineyard has even produced an occasional bottle of Chardonnay.  Guest House facilities offer temporary residency for VIPs, while a Fitness Center sustains wellness for Lucasfilm employees and guests.  The Ranch maintains communication links with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Lucasfilm's acclaimed special effects facility in San Rafael, and LucasArts, the computer game company, located in nearby Marinwood.

An underground network of proprietary utilities provides self-sufficiency to the Ranch, which maintains a high voltage distribution system, fiber optics cabling, and a phone system networked with ILM.  A food services department operates three restaurants on site.   Storage buildings on the grounds house such rare movie memorabilia as costumes from Darth Vader and C-3P0, the original R2-D2.  A display case in the Main House houses Indiana Jones' whip, Luke Skywalker's lightsabre and other fabled items.

Protecting this facility and its tenants is the responsibility of a 16-member industrial fire department which provides fire protection, safety and security for the 235-acre site.  The Skywalker Ranch Fire Safety Department, as it is officially known, had been a volunteer function in connection with the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Dept.  Because of the specialized needs of the Ranch, the Fire Department was formally established with the State Fire Marshal's Office in July, 1985.  All firefighters are trained to Firefighter-1 and EMT certification through the State Fire Marshal's Office.  Due to the brigade's security tasks, all firefighters also receive Search and Arrest Procedures through the police academy. 

"We see ourselves as a satellite of the County fire department," Forster said.  "We recognized that the visibility of George and the company and the celebrities creates quite a bit of attention, worldwide, so we decided to dual-role the staff.  It allowed us to provide general support of the whole facility in a caretaking kind of role."  A function of the company's Operations Division, the fire and safety crew is supplemented by trained volunteers from the Ranch work force. 

Aware of the high-profile environment of his business, George Lucas has committed the facility to interacting positively with the local community while maintaining a secluded environment for business.  The Ranch property itself has never been open to the public - an exception made at Lucas's consent for public safety organizations.  Skywalker participates extensively in local mutual aid training - both fire and law enforcement - and frequently invites nearby agencies to use the Ranch as a training site.  "It helps us as a business to be involved in these things, and we can establish a good working relationship by including a lot of support for emergency service groups," said Forster.  "We also do some volunteering out in the community.  George sees that all as part of being a good neighbor." 

The Brigade operates two pieces of apparatus, a 1985 Pierce Type-1 pumper and an all-wheel drive 1991 Pierce "Minuteman" Type 3 pumper.  When the brigade acquired fire engines, George Lucas asked that their color match the official Ranch vehicles' dark-hued maroon, which gives the apparatus a unique appearance.  The Type-1 pumper is used for initial structural and EMS response throughout the facility, while the Type-3 is used for back-up and for vegetation fires.  Each rig has a full complement of radios, headsets, and cellular phones.

"Mobile radios have all the company channels, all the local fire channels, and the state mutual aid channels," said Skywalker Fire Captain John Boyd.  Because County Fire operates on a VHF low band frequency, while the state White channels and the company frequencies are in High Band and UHF, each engine carries three radios and three microphones.  "When it gets busy, it gets somewhat hectic!" Boyd said.

The firehouse is equipped with two Motorola Centracom II consoles for communications.  The Fire Brigade uses company business radio channels, as well as county fire and state mutual-aid frequencies. During an emergency, the Fire Brigade will switch to the Marin County Fire frequency and coordinate the response with County Fire Communications. Allied agencies such as state Forestry, Highway Patrol, US Fish & Game and Marin County Sheriff frequencies are regularly monitored at the firehouse.  A direct phone line connects both the fire house and security kiosk with the Marin County Sheriff's Communications Center in San Rafael.

"We try to keep in mind the overall goals of the fire service, while recognizing that, we're here to support film and television. That makes us different than a standard fire department.”

To communicate throughout the hilly terrain and large buildings on the site, Skywalker Fire uses a Vehicle Repeating System (VRS).  Portable radios transmit to receivers in the apparatus, which rebroadcasts the transmission at higher power to reach the firehouse or the Marin Fire Comm Center at nearby Woodacre.   The on-duty crew also monitors the company CCTV security system, fire and intrusion alarm system, and provides security ID carding for employees. 

Marin County Fire provides emergency dispatching for Skywalker Fire.  If an alarm or emergency call comes into the firehouse or security kiosk, the Fire Brigade notifies County Fire which, in turn, rings down the Skywalker fire station and pages out company volunteers, while initiating the simultaneous response of County Fire apparatus and, for EMS calls, fire paramedic units.  "We're actually self-dispatching," said Forster.  "If an alarm comes in, we'll call them on the phone and let them know we're responding.  The dispatcher's going to page our people and then tone out whoever else is going to come our way.  Our agreement with them is basically to get everything rolling because it's a long ways away.  We can always turn it around if we don't need it, but it's better than asking for them 15 minutes later."

In addition to response on site, Skywalker Fire responds to off-site emergencies and county mutual-aid responses.  Injury accidents on winding Lucas Valley Road are particularly common.  Skywalker Fire participated in the huge Oakland hills conflagration in 1991, sending their Type 1 with crew as part of a special-request mutual aid strike team, as they did during Marin County’s Vision Fire of 1995.  Of the latter fire, Skywalker’s Type 3 engine was part of a local strike team that was credited with “the most amazing save of the fire,” according to Marin County Fire Operations Chief Jim Selfridge.  Working with crews from Marin County, Bolinas, Marinwood, and Tiburon Fire Departments, the strike team saved a home on a heavily wooded hillside from the advancing flames.

Involvement in fire prevention, suppression, EMS, and security keeps job duties both diverse and interesting.  "Because of our aggressive prevention efforts, most incidents on site are fairly small," said Matt Gustafson, Skywalker Fire Assistant Chief.  "That's something we're really proud about.  Most of the large incidents we're involved in are off-site."

Security, for the most part, is similarly low key.  Confrontational situations are infrequent but aggressively handled.  "We have a desire to have a private, non-obstructive company out here and we would like people to respect that," said Gustafson.  "We don't have a lot of tolerance for people who don't respect that."  Skywalker maintains a good relationship with the Marin County Sheriff's Department, who will respond in to handle any arrests made on site.

Because the Fire Department's jurisdiction consists of a private corporation rather than a public community, tighter control is maintained over safety regulations.  But Lucasfilm operates very much like a family, and this carries over into the Fire Brigade's philosophy.  "Because we're a new and a small department, we don't have a lot of tradition," said Gustafson.  "We do things because we think it's going to work best for us versus doing things because that's the way it's been done for years."

"We really want to promote a team concept in the operations division," said Tom Forster.  “We're all here to provide what George calls the gift of good service to other human beings."

From Marin to Mos Eisley, the Skywalker Ranch Fire Brigade ensures the safety and security of Lucasfilm and its employees.  In a way, this small fire department is just as involved in the company's cinematic spectacles as are the writers, technicians, composers, and special effects artists.  In keeping the facility safe and secure, Skywalker Fire allows the continued development of the blockbuster movies that have entertained so many.

"We try to keep in mind the overall goals of the fire service, being progressive and being safe, equipping our people with good equipment and working well with other agencies, while recognizing that, ultimately, we're here to support film and television," said Forster.  "That makes us different than a standard fire department.  If we do all of this really well, we support an environment where creative people can succeed."

When not editing 9-1-1 Magazine, Randall Larson is a mild-mannered Senior Dispatcher for the San Jose Fire Department, and the Secretary for the Northern California Fire Chiefs Association - Communications Section, which supports dispatcher training for agencies like Skywalker Ranch.  The author is particularly indebted to the hospitality and assistance of Tom Forster and Matt Gustavson for the completion of this profile, and to Lucasfilm Ltd. for authorizing its publication. (1996 bio).


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