After 30 years in the Department and the last six leading it, Indianapolis Fire Chief Brian Sanford is stepping down. He announced the decision this week after disclosing he is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Sanford is moving on as the Chief of Staff for Department of Public Safety Director, Troy Riggs.
Becoming a firefighter wasn’t exactly a calling for Sanford. He grew up on a dairy farm and drove a school bus early in his career.
But, one day a family friend who worked for the Warren Township Fire Department approached him about joining. Sanford agreed to look into the profession and the rest is history.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "Once I got exposed to it, it became what I wanted to do and really all I wanted to do."
Sanford worked on the family farm for two more years, but became hooked to the excitement, adrenaline and comradery of firefighting, and ultimately gave it his full attention.
But, that doesn’t mean the job doesn’t come without heartaches.
Sanford says one of the worst days of his career came early on when three teenage girls died in a grease fire after they fell asleep while cooking french fries.
"That run came out at 2:07 a.m and honestly it was probably two months before I could sleep all the way through the night at the station without waking up at 2 a.m.," he said.
Sanford eventually came to terms with the tragedy and, over the course of three decades, rose through the ranks.
He served for eight years as Warren Township’s Fire Chief.
The department merged with IFD in 2007 and shortly thereafter, Indianapolis Fire Chief Jim Greeson moved on to become State Fire Marshall.
Sanford was tapped as his replacement.
"Those eight years of experience I think helped put me in a position where ‒ I don't even know if I was totally ready when I came into (IFD Chief), to be quit honest ‒ but, it put me with a good background," he said.
Since he started serving as IFD Chief in 2008, the Department underwent three mergers, has grown by 30 percent, and expanded its service district by 178 miles.
But, Sanford says his greatest success is opening the lines of communication.
"You've got to take care of the people. That's what we tried to do," he said. "I think everybody's meshed. I think if you asked the majority of people on the job, whether they were merged in or whether they were original IFD, they would tell you it's been successful."
In 2011, Sanford found out he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Initially it didn’t slow him down, but now he is starting to show symptoms.
He still goes to some of the biggest alarm fires, but Sanford mostly sits behind a desk these days.
"I've lost some muscle in my left hand, some functionality in my left hand. I'm starting to get some loss in my right hand, although, it's still pretty functional. My left leg, it's creeping up into it. I've got a little bit of a limp there," said Sanford. "It's been progressing slowly. The unfortunate side of ALS is there is no real effective treatment and there is certainly no cure for it."
Sanford thinks a Chief should be able to handle to physical duties of a firefighter. He can’t anymore so, he’s stepping down.
"I've always kind of been of the philosophy that the Fire Chief should be able to lead the troops into battle, so to speak," he said. "I'm still at a point where I think I could do the office side of the job for a number of years, but, I'm to the point where I don't think I can do all the ‒ or quickly, won't be able to do ‒ all the physical parts of the job. So, it just seemed like an appropriate time."
Sanford let his boss, Department of Public Safety Director Troy Riggs, know about his disease shortly after Riggs came to Indianapolis in 2012.
He has kept him informed about his status since and because he is still able to do office work, Riggs agreed to bring Sanford on as his Chief of Staff after he steps down as Fire Chief.
Sanford thinks it’s a move that benefits both parties.
“(Riggs) has a lot of experience and background from other positions he's had, but the only piece that he doesn't have fully is the past history of what's gone on here in the city," he said. "I think I can bring that to him So, I think that'll be helpful.”
Sanford is staying with the department until they find his successor.
He wants that person to have administrative and firefighter experience and come from IFD.
But for now, Sanford is focused on his final few months as chief and drawing on his experience as a firefighter in his fight against ALS.
"You get called on many medical runs, many fire runs, many injuries and you see life. You see sometimes the bad side of life up close and personal. It kind of gives you some perspective that you may be in a tough situation, or you may have some tough things going on, but you know what, there are people all over this world dealing with tough situations," said Sanford. "So, I think from that aspect of it, it helps you to remain positive."
"I know what I'm facing, but at the same time, I'm not crying the blues about it. I'm making the best of every day, but I don't dwell on it."
Because, for a 30-year veteran of the department, there are too many good days and accomplishments to dwell on instead.