After 42 years of service, Rochester fire chief set to retire
ROCHESTER — Chief Norman Sanborn is retiring this spring after 42 years of service at the Rochester Fire Department.
Sanborn started as an on-call firefighter in 1975. It didn’t take him long to realize that emergency rescue work was his calling.
“We had these old mill buildings down in the center of town, like a lot of communities have — mills that had all closed down, were vacant. And we had one of them over here on North Main Street start on fire one afternoon when I was in the first few months on the call force,” Sanborn said Tuesday morning. “It was a five-alarm fire and it was exciting. I think at the time I was 23-years-old, so with the excitement and everything I said, ‘Geez, you know, I kind of like this.’ And then I kept coming to fires and just fell in love with all the action and excitement and all that.”
In July of 1977, Sanborn was hired full time. During his first shift, another downtown mill building went up in flames overnight.
“We came downstairs and the flames were so high over the buildings downtown, it looked like it was daylight,” Sanborn said.
Over the years, Sanborn worked his way up the ranks, and in January of 2005, was named chief. His job includes serving as Rochester’s emergency management director.
When asked, Sanborn said the biggest change he has noticed over the years is the focus on firefighter safety.
“When I first came in here, we used to ride what we call tailboard. We used to ride on the back of the trucks, and you’d just hang on for your life and hope you don’t fall off,” Sanborn said. “It’s just escalated from there and gotten more and more safe. Now all the cabs are enclosed. They have rollover protection… The trucks are all automatic. When I came in they were all standard, so you had to have one hand on the wheel and use the other one for shifting.”
Sanborn said thermal imaging so firefighters can see through smoke has been a game-changer. He said some companies are working on thermal imaging that is built into the masks firefighters wear.
Discoveries about what causes firefighters to develop cancer have also led to procedures in how the gear they wear is cleaned. All members of the Rochester Fire Department have two sets of gear so things can be washed to get particles and toxins off them after fighting a fire.
“Years ago, it used to be you never washed your gear or your helmet or anything,” Sanborn said. He pointed out that it was a source of pride for firefighters to get a little dirty. It meant they had been out fighting fires.
Sanborn is scheduled to retire on May 31. Officials in Rochester will form a search committee to find a new chief to lead the department, which has 39 full-time firefighters, 25 call firefighters and two stations.
“It’s not often that you find someone who commits to one organization for the duration of his career,” City Manager Dan Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “We’re extremely thankful for Chief Sanborn’s service to this community. He will be missed, but we wish him the best in his retirement.”
Sanborn plans to continue coaching track at Spaulding High School after retirement, and hopes to spend more time with his grandchildren.