Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on January 26, 2022.

Brothers in Service
Two longtime fire service leaders, Russ Sanders and Gregory Cade, retired at the end of 2021, after a combined 105 years of fire service experience. In their exit interview with NFPA Journal, they share lessons on leadership, the evolution of firefighting, and the challenges facing the next generation of fire service leaders.


Russ Sanders and Greg Cade began their careers just a year apart in the late 1960s as 18-year-old line firefighters. They left the profession in December as two of the most recognizable names in the US fire service—Sanders as the longtime executive secretary of the influential Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association (“Metro Chiefs,” in the trade), and Cade for his work as US Fire Administrator and later at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and NFPA.

Their careers are remarkable not just for their longevity and achievement, but also for their overlap with perhaps the most transformational era in the history of the US fire service.

RELATED PODCAST  Russ Sanders reflects on his career with The NFPA Podcast.

When Sanders was hired in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1967, “you didn’t go off to training school or anything—they just told me to report to the fire station in my neighborhood,” he said in December, a couple of weeks before he retired. “When I walked in the door for my first shift, they gave me fire gear and within an hour I’d already experienced my first civilian fire death. Of course, I had no clue what I was doing. When the bell rang, they told me to jump on the back of the truck, and when it took off out the door, I almost fell off. It was the Wild West back then.”

Cade also has vivid memories of “hanging off the backstep of a 1945 Mac” fire truck at the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire Department, where he began his career as a volunteer in 1968. But he also has painful memories of losing friends to needless accidents and later to preventable cancers, the result, he said, of ineffective equipment and regulations and a generally cavalier attitude toward safety. “When I started, absolutely nobody talked about safety—it just wasn’t part of the conversation,” he said. “We were wearing a breathing apparatus maybe half the time and you took it off as soon as you could. It was crazy, it really was.”

RELATED PODCAST  Greg Cade reflects on his career with The NFPA Podcast.

Five decades later, those days are distant memories—so much so that it could be argued that today’s firefighters are among the most highly trained, regulated, technologically well-equipped, and safety-conscious professionals in the world. As a result, annual firefighter line-of-duty deaths have plummeted by about two-thirds since the 1970s, when NFPA began keeping track, from an annual average of about 150 to an average of 58 over the past three years.

Credit for that achievement, and for many others, is shared by countless people and organizations. But Sanders and Cade are key members of a select group that has worked methodically at all levels—locally, nationally, and globally—to move the fire service to where it is today.

Sanders was promoted to chief of the Louisville Division of Fire in 1986 and led the 700-plus-member department for nearly a decade until he joined NFPA in 1995 as a regional director. His NFPA duties included serving as executive secretary of the Metro Chiefs, a member section of NFPA and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) that brings together the highest-ranking fire officers from the largest departments in the United States and the United Kingdom. The group provides a forum for members to address emerging issues and challenging problems, everything from technology and tactics to health and diversity. Many of the cutting-edge procedures and initiatives adopted by career fire departments over the years can be traced to the Metro Chiefs, steered in large part by Sanders.

After more than two decades at Prince George’s, Cade led large fire departments in Virginia and gained a reputation for taking firm and sometimes unpopular stances to improve safety. In 2007, he was nominated by President George W. Bush to become US Fire Administrator, where he led the National Fire Academy and oversaw the US Fire Administration’s educational, research, and data programs, which are promoted and shared with fire departments around the world. Cade later served as assistant director of national programs for the IAFC. At NFPA, he was director of governmental affairs for more than a decade, lobbying Congress and governmental agencies to improve public safety and increase funding for fire departments. Most recently, he was NFPA’s director of field operations for the mid-Atlantic region.

Before they sailed off into the sunset, NFPA Journal caught up with Sanders and Cade for a conversation about their careers and the evolution of the fire service, and for a few nuggets of wisdom to pass along to the next generation of fire service leaders.

Do you remember what made you decide to join the fire service?

Greg Cade: I had just turned 18, and I had a couple of friends who were a part of it. At the time it sounded interesting and I thought it was a chance to learn some new skills.

Russ Sanders: In 1967, I had just graduated from high school, and I was a carpenter working on a highway project. We had an incident at the work site and the fire department showed up. It just so happened that one of the guys I knew from my neighborhood was on the fire truck. I didn’t even know they paid firefighters in my town. So we got to talking, and I went by the firehouse on the way home from work that day and I signed up. I gotta be honest, what really attracted to me to the job back then was the color TV and air conditioning in the bedrooms at the fire station. I grew up living in the attic; I’d never even seen a color TV at that point, and we certainly didn’t have air conditioning. And it was miserably hot in Louisville.

You stuck with it for more than 50 years, so I assume you eventually found a lot more to like than just the AC.

RS: I’ll tell you, the most important thing that happened my first day—and it had an effect on the rest of my professional career without question—was the fact that I was assigned to a company that was commanded by Captain John Ridge. To this day, he was by far the greatest leader and teacher I’ve ever known. You could just feel this command presence when he was around. It changed my life.

How so?

RS: This is the best example I can give. In 1969, I was drafted into the US Army and went to Southeast Asia. When I came back two years later, I walked to my fire station and the first thing I saw was this person sleeping on the sofa in the training room. He was this kind of grungy looking guy. I figured it was a street person that just came in, which wasn’t unusual in that neighborhood. So I kicked the couch to wake him up and I said, ’Where’s the captain?’ He said, ’I am the captain.’ He told me John Ridge was now a major at the training bureau. I looked around at the quad company and asked, ’Where’s all the personnel?’ He said, ’They’re in bed.’ This is like one o’clock in the afternoon! I walked out of the station feeling sick to my stomach because I knew if I’d come in on the job at 18 years old and that guy had been my company commander, I’d have been hung-over and in bed, too. I would’ve been just like them. My whole career would’ve been different. I’ll never forget that day. I’d learned a real lesson in leadership, and it’s shaped my entire professional life.

Greg, was there a moment or circumstance that was crucial to your development in the fire service?

GC: I was very fortunate to start my career in a department at Prince George’s that prided itself on being on the cutting edge of things. It helped that the University of Maryland and its famous fire protection engineering school were right down the road. We used to joke that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a fire engineer. They wanted to be on the cutting edge, they wanted to make firefighters safe, and I took that with me every stop in my career.

What was the safety ethos in the fire service during the early parts of your careers?

GC: I’ll be honest with you—I’m a cancer survivor and I’ve lost give-or-take half of my hearing from doing things that were just seen as normal parts of the job. When I started, absolutely nobody talked about safety. It just wasn’t part of the conversation. We wore a breathing apparatus maybe half the time and took it off as soon as we could. There wasn’t even proper gear. Most people were issued a set of three-quarter length boots. It wasn’t that bunker pants didn’t exist, but they cost like $50 more. It was an expense thing.

RS: It was the Wild West, I’ll tell you. Once, we had a gasoline tanker overturn and spill thousands of gallons of raw gasoline in this valley and the driver was trapped in the vehicle. All we had were canvas coats and rubber boots, but we waded through this gasoline to try to rescue this truck guy. One spark and we would’ve all been cremated. But that’s the way it was. You did what you had to do at the time. The same with water rescues or train derailments or dealing with all kinds of exotic chemicals. We did what we needed to do, but we didn’t have the training. We didn’t have the equipment. We didn’t have the resources that they have today. We did our best, but it was mainly a trial-and-error kind of situation. And that’s one of the reasons I think we lost a whole lot more firefighters back then than we do today.

How did you go about trying to change that?

GC: When I came to Hampton, Virginia [as fire chief in 1992], I brought that kind of safety-first outlook with me. I came in and made a list of things that needed to change and set out to do it, which was difficult as an outsider. But I was hardheaded enough and believed in what needed to be done, that I started putting policies in place. It was an interesting time—I have the lawsuits to prove it, and I won ’em all. Some of them took a little longer than others, but it was my belief that it was the right thing to do for the people that worked for us.

What was your argument to the rest of the department?

GC: I’d tell them that I worked in Prince George’s County, including my volunteer time, 24 years. And in 24 years, I went to 22 line-of-duty-death funerals. I’ve been to all the line-of-duty funerals that I ever need. I’d say that the majority of those who lost their lives didn’t need to lose them. I mean, there were open cabs and no seatbelts in fire trucks, and several of them lost their lives by just falling off the truck. I tried to instill that same type of safety attitude to all three of the departments that I was fortunate enough to be a part of, and then ultimately when I ran the US Fire Administration.

Has the past 50 years brought improvements to the fire service across the board, or are there things you would bring back if you could?

RS: Without question, time has brought improvements across the board in every aspect of the profession compared to when I came in. It’s not near as exciting today, maybe, because back then it was exciting. But it’s a good tradeoff.

Russ, the Metro Chiefs have always been on the leading edge of most issues concerning the fire service. What do you think are the most pressing challenges faced by today’s fire service?

RS: The Metro Chiefs have a system where we actually identify those challenges by polling our members, and then we work through those challenges. Right now we’re focused on ensuring diversity in our departments and figuring out how to maximize the use of data-driven decision making. I believe, and the Metro Chiefs believe, that there’s strength in diversity; the different ideas, the different cultural backgrounds, all these things bring strength to a fire department and its operations, and its ability to understand a community and its needs. If everybody in the room thinks like you and looks like you, you’re really not going to get any kind of creativity when you’re looking for solutions to problems. We’ve completed a policy draft and supporting documentation on this issue that we’ll present to our membership in May.

What about the data piece?

RS: Data is certainly nothing new, but the challenge facing fire departments now is how to process more data faster for preparedness, prevention, and operations, as well as for firefighter safety and well-being. It’s more important than ever to manage the huge input of data we get from both structured and non-structured sources. When I say structured data, I’m talking about data that are typically well organized, easily formatted, searchable databases, things like addresses, incident numbers, response times, that type of thing, whereas unstructured data has no predefined format and is more difficult to analyze, such as social media, dispatch and radio recordings, and traffic cameras.

One of our goals is to increase the data integration into everyday activities. A key tactic in doing this is the establishment of more automated data capture. The chiefs are working to identify opportunities to integrate technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning into their everyday data collection. They want to create partnerships with the tech industry at the national level so that publicly shared data can be coupled with the response data to better understand local communities and how to provide better fire department services. It’s also a goal to train everyone in the department so that we don’t just have a few technologically sophisticated personnel; the idea is to go through the ranks so that all of our personnel can be involved.

Greg, what would you identify as the biggest challenges faced by the nation’s fire service going forward?

GC: A big one is resources, both money and personnel. A lot of fire departments can easily tell you what their needs are and justify them, but the communities that they serve just don’t have the financial resources to support them. The federal government has done an OK job of putting out grant dollars, but that money isn’t a drop in the bucket compared to the need that’s out there. This is a huge issue for volunteer departments across the country, not just money but members. In Pennsylvania, they went from having close to 400,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s to 30,000 or so today.

Why do you think that is?

GC: In the case of Pennsylvania, if you look at the central part of the state, which is beautiful country, there’s not much there from an economic standpoint [in a lot of those communities] to support a fire department.

That’s true in many other parts of the country as well. There’s been this hollowing out of the central part of the United States, because people are leaving for jobs and opportunities on the coasts. There aren’t as many people around to be volunteers [for fire departments], and on top of that it’s much harder to be a volunteer than when I started, because back then there were no rules. Today, there are a lot of rules—which is really good, because we’re trying to protect those people—but it means that being a volunteer firefighter requires much more time and training than it used to. I can go down to my church and volunteer two hours week, and they’ll be happy to have me. If I went down to my local volunteer fire department and told them that I could give them two hours a week, they’d say, ’Sorry. Thank you for wanting to be a part of it, but two hours a week is not going to get it done.’

As the former US Fire Administrator, what can the federal government do about this crisis?

GC: I’d love to see them better fund the US Fire Administration so that they could be the key to providing training and thinking about what else we need to do. I think part of it is just getting the elected leadership to understand the challenges. It’s not that they don’t care; I think they care tremendously. They just really don’t know what the fix should be. Part of the fix is money, because nothing is free.

As you both hang up the boots after 50-plus years in the fire service, what advice or wisdom would you offer the next generation of men and women who are just starting down the leadership path?

GC: I think the easiest advice I could give is you have to be a lifelong learner. I still try and do that. I learn things from people old and young. Another thing is to look outside of your own group of people and your own comfort zone. I’ve done things where people have asked, ’Why are you involved in this? What does this have to do with being a fire chief?’ It has to do with growth. You don’t know where you’re going find those neat little things that make you think, ’Wow, how do I transition this into the fire service to make it better?’ Throughout my entire career, I’ve seen how the fire service is pretty good at stealing ideas from other people and areas and putting them to very good use. I hope it continues. I don’t have any reason to believe that it won’t, because the people being hired today are just amazing, smart people.

RS: You have to embrace change. You can’t fake it. Change has to energize you, because things are going change and if you’re going to be an influencer or a change-factor yourself, you have to look forward to it. I’ve seen so many people that have to be dragged to change, and then they’re reluctant and they resist—you’ll never be successful that way. It’s not going to be the way it was; it wasn’t for me in 1967, and it won’t be for the next generation the way it was in 2021. So go in with that attitude as you go up through the ranks and I think you’ll have a wonderful career. I know I have. I wouldn’t change what I’ve done for anything, not one single thing. I’ve loved every minute of it. 

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images