Sandy Springs’ incoming fire chief built a career in public service over the last 35 years, but as passionately as he feels about the fire service, Keith Sanders says he’s never considered it a job.
Inspired from age 12 by his father, Benny Sanders, who retired from the Cobb County Fire Department in 1996, Sanders is a second-generation firefighter. He started working right out of high school, in 1979. He worked alongside his father until he left for college in 1987.
“Early on in my life I realized it was a passion; I never considered being in the fire service as a job,” Sanders said. “It was another life. It was a family, and it’s so rewarding to be able to help folks in times of need.”
Sanders still considers his father an ally. “My dad’s my best friend,” he said.
The elder Sanders said he’s been inspired in return by his son’s accomplishments, which include recently graduating from the FBI National Academy, an invitation-only program. “He worked with me for many years and he’s dependable,” Benny Sanders said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of him. He’s fair, he’s honest and he’s reliable.”
In addition to having a retired firefighter for a father, Sanders’ younger brother, Kyle, currently serves as a Cobb firefighter.
Joking that he actually wanted to be a meteorologist, Kyle Sanders said his father and older brother always talked about what a great and rewarding job fire safety was.
“He’s always been very encouraging and a good role model,” Kyle Sanders said of his brother. “He prepared himself so well that plenty of doors opened for him. So, when I heard he was going to Sandy Springs, I wasn’t surprised.”
Fire runs through the Sanders family’s blood, but Sandy Springs’ second fire chief is also a sworn police officer who, in his role as Alpharetta’s deputy director of public safety, oversaw police, fire and 911 operations.
“I’m not the traditional kind of guy who just does it because ‘we’ve always done it this way,’” Sanders said. “I think that we ought to be innovative today and think outside of the box, working with all the departments, community leaders and stakeholders.”
Sanders was scheduled to start work as fire chief on Oct. 20.
John McDonough, Sandy Springs city manager, said Sanders is a proven leader with whom he looks forward to serving. “We are looking forward to Keith serving as the city’s new chief, and continuing to raise the standard of excellence established by retiring Chief Jack McElfish,” McDonough said.
McElfish agreed, noting he has worked with Sanders for more than 15 years. “He is a dedicated, respected fire chief in the metro Atlanta area who has the work experience, educational background and proven qualities to lead Sandy Springs Fire Rescue into the future,” he said.
An early experience as a Cobb firefighter made Sanders realize what kind of leader he wanted to be, he said.
In 1985 or 1986, a fire in the woods of Smyrna spread to buildings, and the roof caved in on Sanders and a fellow firefighter, he said. “It was probably the first time that I really feared that I was dying,” he said. “I was about out of air.”
He wrapped the hose around himself, he said, and firefighters outside pulled him loose. “I actually said my last prayer because I didn’t think I was going to make it out,” he said.
When he escaped, Sanders said the building collapsed into flames, and he later watched it on the television news.
“I know what it feels like to be there,” Sanders said, describing the feeling of having his ears burned while wearing the less-protective masks used by firefighters in the mid-‘80s. “But I still loved it.”
As a leader, Sanders said he wants to ensure the men and women serving in the fire service have the best training and equipment. Having the fitness to fight is crucial to Sanders, he said. “There has to be a serious effort into preparedness,” he said, adding that his police training benefits him in this aspect of his role.
In terms of a proactive plan for Sandy Springs, though, Sanders said he doesn’t want to come in and make great big changes.
“I so look forward to meeting the men and women of the Sandy Springs Fire Department and building some relationships, some friendships,” he said. “I want to look at the organization and see what we can do to be better than what we were yesterday, be our best today and strive to be better tomorrow.”