April 19, 2007 issue

Steve Sudderth: Watauga’s New Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator

Story by Celeste von Mangan

For the past 11 years, Lisa Danner has served as Watauga County Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator. When Danner stepped down from the position last month, Steve Sudderth stepped up, bringing almost 30 years of experience in the firefighting field.

“I joined the Blowing Rock Fire Department in 1978,” said Sudderth. “In a year’s time I was assistant chief and remained so until 1990. In 2004, I retired from the Blowing Rock Fire Department. From 1982 to the present day, I have taught people how to be firefighters and fire inspectors for the state. Our job here is to do fire inspections for Watauga County. We are also the local representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.) Lisa Danner was a tremendous fire marshal—am going to have some big shoes to fill. She was excellent to work for, always on top of her game, all the time.”

Born and raised in Blowing Rock, Sudderth earned a degree in business and worked in the private sector from 1976 until 1992, when he was hired by the county as fire inspector. Sudderth has also served as a building inspector for the past 13 years. He introduced fire prevention education in the Blowing Rock Elementary School with his “Learn Not to Burn” curriculum, a program that was incorporated into all of the Watauga County schools over the years.

“Fire prevention is the key to changing behaviors before the fire happens,” said Sudderth. “By the time the fire alarm goes off, 80 percent of the time it is too late. It’s always cost versus risk analysis going on but through education you can really make a difference in people’s lives. The volunteer fire departments are really picking up in fire prevention and getting better in outreach programs.”

Sudderth said he would like to see people practice fire prevention and developemergency escape plans via exit drills in the home. When it comes to fire philosophy, he believes more in education rather than enforcement.

“If I can educate people,” said Sudderth, “not only are they going to do it, but they can teach their children. Right now we are losing 3,500 people annually to fires—that’s a lot of people. It’s more than we’ve lost in Iraq in four years. And there are 17,000 people injured in fires every year. For industrialized nations, we probably have the worst fire safety record in the world.”

Despite the dismal statistics, Sudderth said there are positives.

“We are doing a lot of good,” he explained. “There are just some things we are not doing well. I think the fire department does an excellent job around here. Emergency Management is responsible for search and rescue, so we work closely with the fire department and rescue squads during manmade and natural disasters. We are the liaison between state and local agencies and also between state and local through FEMA.”

Sudderth’s office is located in the new Law Enforcement Complex where he works with Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator Seth Norris and Office Clerk Sonia Stevens.