Derrick J.V. Sawyer was a lieutenant about 15 years ago when he met Ted Bateman, a Community College of Philadelphia instructor who foretold his future in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
“He was actually one of the first teachers who said that he believed I could become a commissioner,” said Commissioner Sawyer, a native Philadelphian who now leads the city’s 2,300-member Fire Department.
Bateman taught in the Fire Academy and, since 1985, in Community College of Philadelphia’s Fire Science program, where he serves as coordinator. “Derrick stood out,” he said. “He really did. One of the ways that he stood out was the questions he asked. He was looking ahead.”
Sawyer, who earned his associate’s degree from the College in 2004, worked his way up the Fire Department’s promotional ladder during his 29-year career. Mayor Michael Nutter appointed him to the top post in May 2014.
“I was only the second person in my immediate family to have a college degree,” Sawyer said.
Along with Commissioner Sawyer, the College has prepared legions of other firefighters since it began the Fire Science program in 1974. This fall semester, 53 students are enrolled in the Fire Science program and 90 percent of them are firefighters from Philadelphia or surrounding departments, Bateman said. Philadelphia Fire Department employees receive extra promotion points if they have a college degree. Five of the eight executive team members at the Philadelphia Fire Department have received formal education and training from the College, according to Executive Chief Peter Crespo, a 2010 Fire Science graduate who is included in that number. Sawyer appointed Chief Crespo, the first Hispanic executive to hold that position.
Since its founding in 1964 and its opening on September 23, 1965, Community College of Philadelphia has served more than 685,000 individuals. Its graduates have risen to leadership ranks in business, government and education. During the 12 months leading up to its 50th anniversary, the College will profile distinguished alumni like Sawyer whose contributions are moving Philadelphia forward and transforming its communities.
In the fire service profession, where training and preparation can be the difference between life and death, the College provided the commissioner with up-to-date industry knowledge, and helped him to identify and explore his potential. “The advice I would give to someone interested in fire service is to start at community college. It will not only help you get your degree, it will help you become more of a professional in your field,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer entered the fire department in 1985 at age 25. He attended the College off and on throughout his career initially taking one course at a time. Along the way, he encountered many memorable instructors who are experts in their fields. A class taught by retired Deputy Chief Thomas Garrity, who teaches a Fire Science course on strategy and practice, was especially helpful. “His class was actually so good that I took it twice,” the Commissioner said, adding that he needed the review when he was seeking promotion to chief.
He realized the top position was within reach when he became a Deputy Commissioner, which is the second-to-the highest rank in the Fire Department.
As Commissioner, his goal is for the City to become the safest in the country in terms of fire safety. “We believe that we will have fires, but we also believe that no one ever has to die in a fire, and that fire is everyone’s fight,” Sawyer said. To accomplish that objective, all citizens must make sure their homes and businesses have working smoke detectors, fire alarms and, if possible, sprinkler systems, he said.
Every family needs to have a home escape plan that is practiced, so everyone living in the house has walked through the home to identify and inspect all possible exists and escape routes.
“We don’t think about fire safety on a daily basis but if you practice it on a daily basis, we know that the City will have fewer fire fatalities,” Commissioner Sawyer said.