COLUMBIA — Battalion Chief Steven Sapp pointed to a collection of melted smoke alarms on his desk.
"No matter what condition they are in now," Sapp said, "these may well have saved lives."
The charred alarms were accumulated from hundreds of fires he has fought with the Columbia Fire Department.
He said it is a humbling experience to witness the destruction a fire can do and know that was someone's home or business.
"We can make a difference," he said about firefighters. "Our product is community safety."
After 32 years of service with the city, the veteran firefighter announced this month that he will retire, giving him more time for family and volunteering. His last day is June 29.
Sapp, 53, said he has more than enough oomph to last through June but can feel himself approaching the edge. By retiring, he is taking a leap of faith that something else will be out there for him.
Sapp's decision was intuitive. "I promised myself and my staff that if I ever felt the edge slipping away, I would retire," he said.
Co-workers say they will miss his positivity and compassion.
Lt. Debbie Sorrell said, "It will be a huge loss, but he'll never really leave."
Sorrell has worked with Sapp as an assistant fire marshal for seven years.
The way Sapp treats people is contagious, Sorrell said. Firefighters are surrounded by death, loss and devastation as part of the job. But Sapp can put himself in another person's place and take a true humanitarian position toward the people he helps.
Sorrell said that compassion spreads to the rest of the department.
"Being his supervisor, I depend on him a lot," Division Chief Terry Cassil said, who has worked with Sapp for 18 years. "There's always a certain amount of sadness when a friend and colleague leaves."
Beyond that, he said, a lot of institutional knowledge will walk out the door in June.
Sapp began his career in January 1980 as a communications operator in the Public Safety Joint Communications Department. He answered 911 calls for 10 years before he decided to answer his calling as firefighter.
"The police and firefighters get all the credit, but it all starts with that 911 call in communications," Sapp said.
For the last 22 years, Sapp said he has been responsible for more than physically putting out fires.
"When the alarm sounds, we've lost," Sapp said.
He said he teaches fire safety, shares news in the department with the media, investigates the causes of fires and works to ensure every building in Columbia is fire-safe.
Sapp pulled out a monstrous book of fire codes from his bookshelf and flipped it open.
"You can't just say, 'You have to do it because it says so here,'" he said about rules and policies. "You have to ask, 'How do we make it work?'"
The fire that destroyed O'Reilly Auto Parts earlier this month is an example of the department's customer service.
O'Reilly Auto Parts is remodeling the former Aldi grocery store on Business Loop 70 East as another store.
After the fire, Sapp said the department approached O'Reilly Auto Parts to see what could be done to make opening the new store quicker and easier.
As the pioneer public information officer in Columbia, Sapp said he saw the need to create the position after a tornado hit the Southridge neighborhood in 1998. He then became the lead public information officer and was able to set the model for other city departments.
It is important to get information out on what the Fire Department is doing, he said, but even more so to tell residents what they can do to stay safe.
"He is the premier (public information officer) in the city without a doubt," Cassil said.
The prospect of retirement is exciting and scary at the same time, Sapp said. The city is the only employer he has ever had, and the reality of his decision will most likely not set in until the last two or three weeks on the job.
After retirement, Sapp would like to volunteer more and continue helping the Columbia community. He said he hasn't thought much about where he'd like to volunteer but that he would consider working for the Columbia Police Department as a reserve officer or the Boone County Fire Protection District, where he volunteered before he joined the Fire Department.
"I'm not wired to just sit at home," he said.
With 11 grandchildren, he said he'd like to explore areas of the country he's never seen — maybe Washington and Oregon and the Northeast — "before the oldest grandkid is too old to go around with Gran and Pappy."
He will also have more time for photography, a hobby of his. He imagines following and photographing an occasional fire truck.
"Everyone likes to see pictures of themselves, including firefighters," he said.