Derrick Sawyer made history this week by stepping into an unassuming little building on a suburban road that, if you walk maybe two blocks up a steep incline, reveals one of the most spectacular views of the city whose fire department he once led.
Sawyer ushered me into that very building on Tuesday, Day Two of the former Philadelphia fire commissioner’s new gig as chief of the Upper Darby Township Fire Department. As he led me inside, I mentioned how I used to play hoops at the old playground right behind his new digs.
“You’ve got a jump shot?” he asked and told me they called him “Three Nice” on the Philly fire department basketball team. His touch for three-pointers was legendary, apparently. Sawyer would later tell me it was through basketball and track at overwhelmingly white Haddon Heights High School in the 1970s that he saw how sports could melt stereotypes and allow people to forge meaningful relationships across the racial divide.
Sawyer, 61, is the first African American fire chief to hold that post in Pennsylvania’s largest township — a place that feels and looks, actually, a lot like a branch of Philadelphia. He takes the helm of this dense suburb from white predecessors who continued to lead even as the community went from predominantly white to about 34% Black. Mayor Jim Kenney had forced Sawyer out of Philadelphia a few years back in favor of a white outsider. In both cases, the stated goal was to bring fresh perspectives to insular organizations.
Sawyer told me he left Philadelphia unhappy. He felt two years at the helm were not enough to show that he could transform a culture that had corroded into scandal. He was replaced by an out-of-towner who was white.
Sawyer noted the irony as, seated across from me in his office, he heard me outline the role reversal.
“Go figure,” he said.
He was the pick in Upper Darby after a national search launched by Democratic Mayor Barbarann Keffer. She ended GOP mayoral rule in 2019 with a huge win in this onetime Republican stronghold of nearly 83,000 residents in Delaware County.
Despite how the town had grown diverse, its public safety infrastructure had not.
The Upper Darby police force has only two Black staffers — a sergeant and a patrol officer, according to township spokesperson Vincent Rongione.
The fire department?
I asked Sawyer, as we stood at one point inside Ladder 37 near his office: “Is this fire department racially representative of Upper Darby Township? Are there any African American firefighters on staff?”
Sawyer, ringed by a semicircle of veteran career firefighters behind him, slapped his chest with both hands.
“Me,” he replied.
Of Upper Darby’s 53 paid firefighters, only the new boss is Black. (An additional 30 firefighters work as volunteers.)
Capt. Robert Johnson, a 34-year veteran from nearby Havertown, said he viewed Sawyer "no different than the next guy. New guy’s going to bring new questions, new ideas to the table. Just like we don’t ask people their age or ethnicity when we show up at their houses. We just do our job.”
Sawyer was raised in North Philadelphia, the son of a city employee and a homemaker. He worked as a fire equipment mechanic in the Air Force for four years after high school. He then applied for a civil service job in Philadelphia in the 1980s and joined the ranks.
He was in the building and on the ground for the One Meridian skyscraper blaze that killed three firefighters in 1991 and injured 12 next to City Hall. That conflagration captured the world’s attention a decade before the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Many years later, as commissioner, he was on the scene after the 2015 Amtrak crash in Port Richmond. Sawyer’s firefighters extracted eight bodies from mangled wreckage caused by that high-speed derailment.
“But the worst day of my career,” Sawyer said, as I peppered him with questions in front of the impromptu audience of men suddenly reporting to him, “was losing the first female firefighter in the line of duty, which was Joyce Craig.”
Craig died in the dining room of a West Oak Lane home in 2014, the first of Sawyer’s two years at the helm. Federal investigators cited faulty equipment and other operational deficiencies as having played roles in her death.
With his vast experience — he managed 2,400 employees in Philadelphia with 27 ladders and 57 engines, battalions, marine units, etc. — coming to Upper Darby is like bringing a nuclear weapon into a fight with an ant. Upper Darby handles 7,000 calls a year. Philadelphia has "medic units in Philadelphia that run 7,000 by themselves,” by Sawyer’s own count.
But Philadelphia and his new zip code have old housing stock that burns faster as it ages, communities in poverty, dense housing, and tight fire department balance sheets.
Sawyer plans to do a risk assessment: Are the greatest threats flooding? Fires? Something else? He will hold town halls with his staff and also in neighborhoods.
“My plan is to visit every single fire station in this community and let them air out some of the things that they feel need to be addressed early so that we can have some early wins,” he said. “So that we can kind of move on, together."
He added: "As a team.”