Mark Sauter to retire as emergency operations chief

DOWNEY - Mark Sauter, who has headed Downey's emergency preparedness efforts over the last three years, is retiring effective Jan. 1.Sauter, 53, will stay in his Fullerton home until his son graduates high school next June. Then he will move to northern Idaho where he has property, just 60 miles south of Canada. "It's essentially all forest," Sauter said in an interview last month. Sauter was hired by the Downey Fire Department on Aug. 6, 1979. He rapidly climbed the ranks and was named fire chief in 2000 by city manager Gerald Caton, who himself is also retiring Jan. 1. "When I joined the fire department, my goal was to become a captain," Sauter remembered. "Captain was a very challenging position but as chief I hired some really good men. It was a great experience." Sauter remained chief for nearly nine years until he was moved into the newly-created position of "deputy city manager/public safety emergency operations chief." Sauter assumed the new position Dec. 15, 2008. The new job was created due to the water contamination scare of September 2008, Caton said at the time. (For those who don't remember, Downey's water supply incorrectly tested positive for contamination, prompting a "boil-water" order from the city." But without a mass emergency notification system in place, the city struggled to effectively notify residents.) Under Sauter's watch, the city launched a reverse 911 system which alerts residents to emergencies and disasters. All landlines, including unpublished phone numbers, are included in the system's database, but residents need to add their cell phone numbers and/or e-mails. Sauter (with significant help from Coca-Cola) is also credited for the thousands of water storage barrels distributed at no cost. Coca-Cola was hosting an emergency preparedness fair on March 17, 2010 when Sauter spotted a stack of empty barrels sitting in the corner, waiting to be recycled. The barrels previously held the syrup used in soft drinks. Sauter thought the barrels would be great for residents to store an emergency supply of fresh water. "I spoke to [Coca-Cola executive] Tom Davidson and he asked me how many I needed. I asked for 1,000 and he kind of gave me this look," Sauter laughed. "I figured might as well go all the way! But he got the OK from corporate and we held our first distribution that June." Sauter and his team of volunteers passed out 300 water barrels at its first giveaway. At last count, nearly 5,000 barrels of varying sizes had been distributed total. "Coca-Cola has been an amazing sponsor," Sauter said. "They used to recycle those barrels and make money off of it. They're doing a real service to the community." Sauter's byline also became a regular feature in this newspaper. Over the course of two years he wrote 33 emergency preparedness columns, urging residents to prepare for natural disasters, power outages or other unexpected calamities. He brought new life to the Community Emergency Response Team, a group of residents (some elderly) who are on standby to assist in the event of a crisis. Under Sauter's watch, the group began receiving constant training, including a recent drill at the Downey Studios backlot. Warren High School students portrayed victims as CERT members aided firefighters in rescue. "Everyone can help during an emergency. There are roles for everyone," Sauter said. "You don't have to be 25 years old. You can be 18 or 80 and know how to turn off the gas." City administrators have hired assistant fire chief Mark Gillaspie to replace Sauter. The City Council last year budgeted $156,621 for the position. After three years on the job, is Downey truly prepared for a disaster? "I'm hesitant to say we're prepared," Sauter said. "We're always getting better and we're always getting ready. The key is to make a plan, prepare supplies and be aware of situations."

********** Published: December 29, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 37