Interview: How I cut civilian deaths without spending more money

Former Louisville Fire Chief Russ Sanders discusses how he brought the city back from the brink of being the worst for civilian fire fatalities — under budget

By Rick Markley

When Russ Sanders took over as fire chief in Louisville, it had one of the highest rates per capita of civilian fire deaths in the United States. Nine years later, civilian fire deaths were down 30 percent, fire injuries were down 50 percent and property loss was down $1.5 million.

Chief Sanders retired from the fire department in 1995 and now serves as NFPA's central regional director and executive secretary for the Metro Fire Chiefs Association and has co-authored two structural firefighting textbooks.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, annually from 2009 to 2011, an estimated 2,495 civilian fire fatalities resulted from 1,600 fatal fires in residential buildings. When civilian fatalities were averaged across all residential fires, the overall fatality rate was nearly 6 civilian fatalities per 1,000 residential fires.

How Chief Sanders reversed Louisville's grim civilian death trend is something many fire chiefs can replicate today. I talked with him about that program.

Was there a particular civilian death that set this plan in motion?
It was probably more than one, but I remember carrying twins out on Mother's Day — both of them dead and their feet were actually burned off. I didn't have any guilt. I knew we did everything we were trained to do and everything we could have possibly done.

We had just over 600 firefighters and I went to every single company on every shift and sat down face-to-face and said 'our mission has not changed, but we've been going about it all wrong and that's going to change.'

We had programs to conduct home inspections and install smoke alarms in the early '80s. So it wasn't like we were doing nothing. The problem was known. I went to the radical point of saying that from this day forward success is through education.

If you go on a home inspection and find a smoke alarm without a battery, you failed to educate that homeowner. Your biggest indication of failure is when you are rolling out the door with lights flashing and sirens blaring responding to a fire that should have been prevented.

What obstacles did you have early on?
When I took over the department we tracked our efforts by how many feet of hose we laid and how many feet of ladder we raised. It is good information to know, but it becomes your goal — it was bragging stuff.

When I came in with this radical approach, I had a lot of people leave. The department had gone to a state pension plan and it allowed a lot of people to retire. Almost 100 people retired at one time.

I remember them doing interviews with the media saying they didn't come here to be a school teacher or hold old ladies' hands. I wished them the best, but it was time for them to leave.

I had an opportunity to bring in 100 new people and didn't have to teach old dogs new tricks.

From day one in recruit school they had to develop lesson plans and put on programs.

We had a lot of high-rise buildings with elderly and low-income residents with no sprinklers; [sprinkler retrofitting] was one of the big success stories.

Part of the problem was an aggressive misinformation campaign. I remember walking out of a high-rise sprinkler meeting with police escort … because an association had slid flyers under everybody's doors with all this misinformation that we were going to put them out in the street.

What did your plan to reduce civilian deaths look like?
We told the firefighters it was going to be their responsibility to figure out the problems in their particular response district. We gave them every tool we could, but it was their responsibility to create the programs that solve those problems.

For example, it was clear that unsprinkled high-rise, low-income buildings were death traps.

We went through SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) and PEST (political, economic, social, technology) process. We would look at each issue to see if there was a political, economic, social or technological solution.

The SWOT process was the foundation for building the budget. The budget for the department started at the company level. They would have to go through justifying the programs and the cost. It was really a beautiful thing.

Can you give an example?
One of the solutions from these processes was a high-rise retrofit. Louisville was one of the first cities to pass a sprinkler retrofit ordinance. We built an entire plan working with the downtown companies and got political support.

We declared those buildings an eminent hazard. NFPA 1 is the only regulation that requires all high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers and the language in it is from the Louisville ordinance.

Every high-rise in Louisville is now sprinklered and we haven't had a fire death in one since.

Why do you think this plan worked?
The reason it was so successful was [firefighters] had ownership in that program. If I would have said, "we're going to have a high-rise retro-fit program and this is how we're going to do it," it probably wouldn't have been successful.

The retro-fit program was more mine because of the high-profile problems, but the community-service programs I had zero to do with them.

Today there is a big debate about photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms. It's clear from the research that both have pros and cons, but some people today discount the ionization technology as being useless or even dangerous. I believe photoelectric is the better choice, but every smoke alarm we installed was ionization, and a big percentage of that 30 percent fatality decrease was because of all the smoke alarms we installed.

The policy to actually install, rather than simply distribute, smoke alarms came from the company level. I'll never forget it. We had Truck Four responded to a fire on July 4, 1989; six kids died in the house and a smoke alarm we provided was sitting on the coffee table and had never been installed.

That was easy for Truck Four to say no longer were they going to give smoke alarms out; they were going to install them. That grew department-wide. We went to every single door and installed smoke alarms.

What did the plan cost?
At the end of the day, my budget was going down because we were throwing a hell of a lot more money at programs that weren't working.

We reduced spending by an annual average of $382,000. While the city's budget increased by more than 42 percent during this time, which was a nine-year period, our budget had only increased by 29 percent.

We were wasting a lot of money on programs that just weren't working. And we didn't really do any evaluation. If a program had always been in place, we just kept doing it.

The way it works in city government, if you take a program off the table you may never get that money back — even if you know there's a better way to do it. I was lucky because I had a mayor who bought into what we were doing hook, line and sinker. He was a big-time champion of the fire department. 

Was there a reduction in operating expenses with the drop in deaths and injuries?
I don't know that we ever did that conscious calculation. We were probably putting more wear and tear on the apparatus on home inspections and pre-incident planning.

The pub-ed side probably did not save money as much as it saved lives, injuries and property. It reduced fire, so there's no question it saved the community money. But if you are talking about my particular budget, I don't think it played much of a role.

But, the fewer fires you make the fewer firefighters are going to get injured.

What can volunteer departments do to make a difference?
In the smaller departments it would be easier without all the bureaucracy. The bottom line is: if you want to have success, you must create ownership at the lowest level where the rubber hits the road. It is really that simple.

If you've got people in a rural department, get out there and discover where are the problems, the treats. Maybe you have to help them a little with teaching them how to do brainstorming and clearly define what a problem is. 

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