By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Tom Sanderson was driving home from work one night decades ago when he came upon an injury accident. The only help on the scene was a state trooper, so Sanderson offered to assist.
After the victim was on the way to a hospital, an emergency responder approached Sanderson and asked, “have you ever thought about being a paramedic or firefighter,” he recalled.
Sanderson had started his career at the other end of the emergency patient process, as a respiratory therapist at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo.
“I was at the receiving end of a lot of trauma,” Sanderson said.
But that encounter on the way home from work resulted in his life taking a different turn. That planted a seed that he could not squelch. Now, after 33 years in firefighting, with the last 3 ½ as Bowling Green’s chief, Sanderson is retiring on Jan. 25.
Sanderson started out as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in his hometown of Perrysburg.
“I will always remember my first run, it was just a chimney fire. But I will always remember it,” he said. “I loved it.”
Since then, he has been on call round the clock – first for the fire whistle, then fire phones, then pagers.
“You don’t punch out,” he said.
As chief, it’s been a little different. “It’s difficult to go from responding to emergencies and stepping off the fire truck or the ambulance,” to managing the division, Sanderson said. “I miss that.”
But Sanderson has kept himself busy the last 3 ½ years by challenging some of firefighting’s long-standing operating traditions.
Sanderson wasn’t content with the status quo as fire chief, according to Municipal Administrator Lori Tretter. He saw the purpose of the division as far more than putting out fires and responding to EMS calls.
“Tom really proved to be the agent of change,” Tretter said. “He has accomplished so very much in his time as chief.”
First, Sanderson believed in the value of the fire division partnering with the community. “I wanted to make the fire division very accessible to the community,” he said.
So he started a “community risk reduction program,” designed to improve safety for citizens as well as firefighters. Instead of focusing on putting out fires, the fire division redirected its attention toward preventing fires from occurring.
“That’s been very well supported by the community,” the chief said.
For years, fire safety tips had been shared at schools. “The fire prevention program in Bowling Green had been primarily targeting kids,” he said.
But Sanderson saw the value of taking that information to businesses and residents.
Second, Sanderson wanted to reduce the number of false alarm fire runs to Bowling Green State University.
“If someone burned popcorn in the microwave in their room, it would empty the whole dorm,” he said. And that would require the fire division to respond with its aerial ladder truck and a full shift of firefighters. The firefighters would climb up flights of stairs carrying their gear just to find burned food.
Working together, BGSU agreed to upgrade its fire protection technology in residence halls, so that only the room with the burned food is alerted. The hall is not emptied, and police respond to see if the fire division is needed.
That change has resulted in a 75 percent decrease in false alarms at BGSU. That means the city firefighters are not responding to a non-emergency on campus when they might be needed for a real emergency elsewhere, the chief said.
Third, the chief worked to change the public safety dispatch system, so emergency crews can be dispatched faster. In the past, 911 calls went to the sheriff’s office first, then were transferred to the fire division, where a firefighter then dispatched staff.
“It took us longer to respond,” Sanderson said.
Now, all the 911 calls go to the sheriff’s office, where they are immediately dispatched to the appropriate department. The change not only cut down on dispatch time, but it also meant that a trained firefighter/paramedic no longer had to be used for dispatching.
“I have to commend the dispatchers. It’s a much better service to the citizens,” the chief said.
As he prepares to leave his post, Sanderson takes with him some unshakeable memories. He will never forget the Pike Street fire at a vacant warehouse, when some firefighters were injured by falling debris as the building collapsed.
And there are his fellow firefighters.
“I’m not going to forget all the people I’ve lived with,” he said. “We’re like family. I’ve spent a lot of time with these people. I can’t say enough about the people who work here.”
As chief, his “family” grew to include city administration.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to get to know the people in the community.”
Sanderson is confident he is leaving the fire division in good hands, with Bill Moorman taking over as chief. Moorman will be sworn in at the next City Council meeting on Feb. 5.
At the City Council meeting this past week, Sanderson was praised for improving communication between the fire division and the community, excelling at problem solving, and challenging firefighters to improve their skills, Tretter said. “He pushes employees to be the best they can be.”
The chief’s community risk reduction programs, dispatching changes, and decrease in false alarms will have a lasting effect, Tretter said.
“The impact of his work will be felt in this community for many years to come,” she said.
Mayor Dick Edwards also talked about the retiring chief at the City Council meeting this past week. “You have done a superior job as a firefighter and a paramedic,” he said. “Your services will be terribly missed.”
Several city officials talked about Sanderson’s ability to work with other departments – like performing quick site plan reviews for the planning office, and assisting with public works.
“Tom has been A1 to work with,” said Public Works Director Brian Craft.
“I want to express my appreciation for his service to the community,” Council President Mike Aspacher said.
A farewell gathering for Sanderson will be held Jan. 24, from 4 to 5:30 p.m., in the Simpson Building at the corner of Conneaut Avenue and Wintergarden Road.
As he leaves, Sanderson plans to continue community service – of a different sort. The day after retirement, he will be headed to Guatemala to help on a mission trip organized by Father Herb Weber of St. John XXIII Catholic Community. The volunteers will be building cook stoves, to replace open fires as the primary method of cooking. “Whatever the people in the village need,” he said.
Sanderson also hopes to spend more time bicycling, motorcycling and spending time with family and friends – since he will finally be off call.