ROCHESTER — After more than 40 years with the Rochester Fire Department, Chief Norman Sanborn is hanging up his helmet.
A longtime resident of Rochester, Chief Sanborn spent his entire career at the fire department. He is set to retire on May 31.
“All these years I’ve loved my job,” Chief Sanborn said. “I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything.”
The City will begin the process of forming a search committee to find a replacement to lead the department, which has 39 full-time firefighters, 25 call firefighters and operates from two stations, covering an area of 49 square miles and serving a population of 30,000 people.
“Chief Sanborn has been an exceptional leader of the Rochester Fire Department. It’s not often that you find someone who commits to one organization for the duration of his career,” City Manager Dan Fitzpatrick said. “We’re extremely thankful for Chief Sanborn’s service to this community. He will be missed, but we wish him all the best in his retirement.”
Chief Sanborn first began at the Rochester Fire Department in 1975 as a call firefighter.
It wasn’t long before he was in the action, responding to a five-alarm fire at one of the old, abandoned Wyandotte Mill buildings. The four-story structure was engulfed in flames, with fire escaping every window. It took many hours to bring the fire under control, and the building was destroyed.
Fast forward two years. Chief Sanborn becomes a full-time firefighter with the department. During his first night on the job full-time, another Wyandotte Mill building caught fire. Flames reached 40 to 50 feet in the air – so high that firefighters could see them from the fire stations. Five alarms were called out again, and crews remained on scene all night putting out the blaze.
“It was a memorable first night,” Chief Sanborn recalled. “It was a rough way to start, but it was exciting as a brand new firefighter on duty.”
During the 1990s, Rochester experienced a string of arson fires. In February 1992, a five-alarm fire occurred at Al-Gor Shoe Mill, destroying the building. Not long after, in April of ’92, someone set a fire in the lobby of the Northgate Apartments. Thankfully, Rochester firefighters were able to contain the two-alarm blaze before anyone got hurt and the building was seriously damaged. Approximately two hours later, the five-story brick McDuffee Block building, which sat in the middle of downtown Rochester, was on fire. Five alarms were called and crews remained on scene overhauling the historic building that was later deemed a total loss.
In between fighting fires, Sanborn got involved with coaching track, as a way to spend more time with his daughters while they were in middle school. However, he found that he enjoyed the sport so much that he continued even after his children graduated. Now, with 25 years of coaching experience under his belt, at the youth, middle school and high school levels, Sanborn plans to keep coaching even after retirement from the fire department.
“Firefighting has always been my passion, but when I started coaching track, I found I was almost as passionate about that,” Chief Sanborn said. “I figured firefighting was it, but when I got involved with track I realized how rewarding it was to work with students and see them progress and improve in the sport.”
Climbing the ranks
Over the years, Sanborn made his way up the ranks, from lieutenant to captain to deputy chief, before he was named chief in January 2005. In his capacity as fire chief, he also served as Rochester’s emergency management director.
“It’s been nice to stay in your own community and work all the way up,” Chief Sanborn said. “I never thought I’d go all the way to chief, but it worked out that way. I just wanted to be a firefighter and do my job.”
During his time leading the Rochester Fire Department, Chief Sanborn completed a multitude of projects to improve firefighter safety and organization within the department, as well as update citywide procedures and equipment. The Rochester Fire Department is more modern, better staffed and better equipped under Chief Sanborn.
As with much of his career, once he transitioned into his new role, it wasn’t long before something big happened. During his first big fire as chief, Sanborn responded to Colby’s Ol’ Town Tavern on Hanson Street for a five-alarm fire in January of ’06.
While Colby’s was destroyed (and the neighboring building, Big Head’s Bar and Grille sustained substantial damage), no one was injured, and operations on scene ran smoothly for the new chief.
The Colby’s fire convinced the City to act on a long-standing request from Chief Sanborn to purchase a tower ladder truck, something Sanborn had been advocating for for years before he became chief.
In 2008, the city allocated $900,000 to purchase a tower truck, which has a long ladder and a bucket at the end that increases firefighter safety and allows crews to rescue people from two or three stories high much more easily than with a standard “stick” ladder.
“The tower ladder truck is a game changer. It’s our lead ladder truck because it’s so much safer,” Chief Sanborn said. “We’ve had a lot of big fires in the city and responded for mutual aid with it a bunch of times.”
Chief Sanborn also secured funding to purchase four new engines, modernizing nearly all of the Rochester Fire Department’s fleet.
Additionally, Chief Sanborn worked with firefighters to develop the department’s first Technical Rescue Team for the City and secured a grant to purchase equipment and a trailer to store it.
In his role as Emergency Management Director, he acquired funding to upgrade the Rochester Emergency Operations Center with up-to-date equipment and worked with a committee to complete the first All Hazards Plan for the city to handle events like a flu pandemic or natural disaster.
While serving as Chairman of the Emergency-911 Committee, Chief Sanborn continued a decades-long initiative to rename duplicate street names, reorganize numbering issues and ensure that all streets in mobile home parks were properly numbered. Officials are nearing the end of the project, which will help improve emergency response times and eliminate confusion for first responders.
As Chief Sanborn nears his retirement date, he is pleased to say that he has accomplished many of his goals, including ensuring that the city has a solid and experienced leadership team in place to help the next chief and generation of firefighters advance in their careers.
This summer, Chief Sanborn will take his family to Walt Disney World, go camping and travel.
“It’s bittersweet to end this chapter of my life because I’ve enjoyed coming to work every day,” Chief Sanborn said. “I’m proud to call my colleagues throughout this city, county and state my friends.”