David Scannell was born in New York on January 31, 1820. Before beginning his career as a firefighter in 1851, he served as an officer in the Mexican War. At the age of 31 he set off for California on board the steamer Gold Hunter. The following year, he ran against Thomas Johnson for sheriff of San Francisco, but being a newcomer to the city, he lost the election. He later became sheriff, and before his election, served as undersheriff to Sheriff William Gorham. Upon winning the election for sheriff, as it was noted in his biography, Scannell was praised by the citizens of San Francisco for being "free from the vices of dissipation and gambling."
Scannell also served as chief engineer of the San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department until December 2, 1866, when he signed the declaration that created the new Paid Fire Department of the City of San Francisco. In 1863, he was one of the founding members of the Firemans Fund Insurance Company and sat on the Board of Directors of the Firemans Fund. It was originally decreed that at least one-fourth of directors be part of the San Francisco Fire Department, of which Scannell was the most prominent member.
On April 3, 1871, David Scannell was appointed chief engineer of the newly formed professional fire department. Upon his appointment, nearly 500 former volunteer firefighters paraded through the streets to show their appreciation of their former volunteer leader. In April 1873 he was removed from office during a disagreement between fire commissioners. On December 1, 1873, he as reappointed chief engineer. During his tenure as chief engineer, the citys first fireboat and first water tower were put into service, and Scannell recommended height limits on buildings and fire escapes to make firefighters more effective in such a fire-prone city.
David Scannell died on March 30, 1893. In his will he provided $2,000 to establish a fund to purchase a meritorious service medal that continues to be awarded to this day. The medal was "established to honor a member of the Fire Department who was most meritorious in the performance of his or her duty and for the bravest act performed in the saving of human life at the risk of his or her life."
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