November 17, 2001, Deputy Kevin Sorenson of the Portage County Sheriff’s Department was on duty when at 1:30 a.m., he was dispatched to a one-car accident on Highway CC. The caller advised that the driver of the car was trapped, unconscious, and had obvious injuries. While enroute to the scene, Deputy Sorenson was advised the car was on fire and that the driver was still trapped.
Nearly twelve minutes after the call came in, Deputy Sorenson arrived and found the wrecked car, off the roadway, with the engine compartment engulfed in flames that raged to four feet in height. Two civilians had been trying to put out the fire. Deputy Sorenson brought his fire extinguisher to the car and then saw the victim, Roche Rossier, partially ejected, hanging facedown out of the driver’s window. Rossier’s legs were trapped between the dashboard and the door. The flames were within one foot of Rossier’s body.
After making an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the flames, Deputy Sorenson and civilian Michael Kaminski tried to remove Rossier from the burning car. Kaminski held Rossier’s upper body while Deputy Sorenson worked at freeing Rossier’s trapped legs. Once Rossier’s legs had been freed, Deputy Sorenson and Kaminski removed Rossier from the still burning car and carried him to safety. At the side of the road, Deputy Sorenson immediately began a medical assessment and attended to Rossier’s injuries. Portage County ambulance took over medical care and brought Rossier to the Stevens Point airport, where they met the Spirit of Marshfield emergency helicopter. Rossier was air lifted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield, WI.
Although Roche Rossier has not fully recovered from the injuries he sustained that November night, he certainly would have died in his burning vehicle if not for the selfless actions of Michael Kaminski and Deputy Kevin Sorenson.
August Erdmann became a firefighter for the City of Milwaukee in 1964, and retired as Chief of the Department in 1996. During his 32 years of service, Erdmann had been a witness to, and part of, many great incidents. Chief Erdmann has many commendations in his file; among them are some for having saved lives from within burning buildings. However, throughout his years on the job, he had become increasingly disturbed by the number of fire deaths that were occurring every year. After becoming Chief in 1989, Chief Erdmann decided to address the problem in a very direct manner. He conceived an idea and it was titled Project FOCUS or Firefighters Out Creating Urban Safety.
In reviewing then-recent fire related deaths, it was found that most of the citizen deaths occurred as a result of not having or not maintaining smoke detectors. The most affected areas of the community were mapped out and project FOCUS was put to work.
The unique concept of this program is that it uses fire department vehicles staffed by on-duty firefighters for the purpose of fire prevention and education. Firefighters go door-to-door to install smoke detectors and change batteries where needed, hand out information and discuss fire safety. This is a service for the public and they can choose to receive this assistance or not.
Since the introduction of this program, fire related deaths in Milwaukee have decreased considerably. In the first eleven years of the program, only one fire related death has taken place in a FOCUS home. The exact number of lives that have been saved by this program is not known, but it is safe to say that Chief August Erdmann’s project FOCUS has been very successful and should be aggressively copied by other communities.