For Charleston Fire Chief Robert Sutler, Dec. 14 will be just another day on the job. “We don’t thrive on praise,” said the 28-year veteran firefighter. “When people see us coming, it’s usually their worst day.”
The 49-year-old chief has seen many people’s worst days. He’s pulled the bodies of young children out of charred buildings. Administered Narcan to countless overdose victims.
He seems young to be managing one of Charleston’s largest and most expensive operations, but to him, that’s old. “‘Twenty and out’ is what we say about this business,” he said. “It’s very hard on your body and very tough emotionally.”
Chief Sutler gave me a brief glimpse into his typical day when I met with him earlier this month. We started out at CFD’s administrative offices at Station No. 2 on the West Side. That is Sutler’s stomping ground. He attended Watts, Lincoln and Stonewall schools and is able to whip around the narrow streets with little effort.
He knows the area, and he knows the people. “That girl there,” he said, pointing to a thin wobbly figure in an unzipped coat. “She’s on meth. Now if she were on bath salts too, she wouldn’t even have a coat on. Maybe not even a shirt.” He noticed another man curled on a street bench cradling his knapsack. “He’s sleeping one off,” Sutler said without judgment.
On our way to Station No. 7 on Cora Street, he showed me a couple of houses on Crescent that burned and are now boarded up. I wondered if meth labs are the cause of most of house fires.
But according to Captain Mike Shank of the Fire Inspector division, it’s not meth so much any more. “Most are just unattended fires. Candles. Electrical issues. Arson.” He said sometimes homeless people will break into an abandoned house and try and build a fire. The CFD has responded to 88 structure fires this year.
Sutler said West Virginia leads the nation in deaths from structure fires. “It’s really sad,” said the father of seven. “Children and the elderly are the ones who suffer.” Sutler believes if state law required sprinkler systems in the state building code, many lives could be saved.
He also needs more resources for prevention, he said. “We’ve come a long way with smoke detectors, but we still lack the money to do it right.” He said some residents would try to return the free smoke detectors to Lowe’s. Others, they would find in burned out homes with the batteries removed. “Now we install the good ones with 10-year batteries. But they are expensive.”
We popped into to Station No. 7, where five firefighters ages 25 to 45 were scrambling eggs and grilling peppers and onions to make breakfast burritos. They had just returned from a chest pain call. The fire department operates five ambulances and are the first responders on most 911 calls, the vast majority of which are emergency room trips: heart attacks, drug overdoses, car accidents and home accidents.
In 1996, the City of Charleston merged the fire department and emergency medical services. Now everyone employed by the department is a trained paramedic and firefighter.
Sutler came up through the ranks by way of the civil service system. He’s new to the job — his photo isn’t even posted yet beside the 20 chiefs who preceded him. “I am learning every day,” he said. “You never stop training.”
He admitted much of his job is necessarily political. He took me to City Hall, where I was allowed to sit in on a regular weekly meeting of the city’s department heads. Mayor Danny Jones was filling out the last few days of his term before newly elected mayor Amy Goodwin would take office. The police chief gave a brief report of a girlfriend who shot her boyfriend near the Empty Glass, an establishment Jones once owned. “Ain’t love grand?” Jones quipped.
Outside the mayor’s chambers, Sutler talked with former Fire Chief Grant Gunnoe, who is now Emergency Services Director for the City of Charleston. “We have to work together when there’s a disaster,” he said. Gunnoe’s job is to coordinate the response of all health and public safety agencies. “I couldn’t do this job without the support of all the people around me.”
I asked Sutler what Bud Callahan, Charleston’s first fire chief, would say if he could travel through time to present day. He thought a minute. “I guess the obvious response would be the changes in technology,” he said. “The kinds of materials that are catching fire in homes today are made from polymers. These polymers burn at six times the BTUs of wood. So fires are hotter and houses are better sealed. This creates an extremely dangerous situation for firefighters. We’re seeing a higher incidence of cancer among our first responders.”
He also thinks Callahan would be surprised to learn firefighters start out at around $38,000 per year. (The chief’s salary is $100,000.) “Still,” Sutler said, “we have a hard time filling openings and keeping qualified people.” The department only has one female firefighter.
“But honestly,” he said, “I think Callahan would be most surprised to see we aren’t in a better place. We can build buildings with amazing amenities like HVAC and high-tech features, but we aren’t building them to save the very people who will live in them.”
He also bemoans the fact that West Virginia is first in the nation in obesity, diabetes, opioid abuse, and deaths in structure fires — all factors that keep his first responders answering a call almost every 30 minutes. “We need to do better.”
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