Bill Pohl

Red Cross volunteer spearheads fire-safety program

A desire to give back to his community in retirement led Bill Pohl to the American Red Cross of East & South Central Ohio, where he leads a lifesaving mission to install smoke detectors in homes across Fairfield and Hocking counties. The Sound the Alarm initiative has placed more than 1,000 devices in some of the area’s most vulnerable households in the last three years.

Pohl, a Rushville resident, has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2011, working on local disaster relief, serving as a Sound the Alarm coordinator and sitting on local and regional boards. “He is the Sound the Alarm campaign,” said Rod Cook, executive director of the East & South Central Ohio chapter, who tapped Pohl to lead the initiative. “He believes in it and that helps him to sell it to other organizations and to the clients themselves.”

Pohl, 70, runs the program with an analytical flair that befits his background. A Milwaukee native who grew up in Chicago, he holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University. The U.S. Navy veteran worked in technical, sales and management posts in the nuclear power industry, at Spectra Physics Corp. in California and Dayton (where he moved in 1982), and with Princeton Delivery Systems in Canal Winchester, from which he retired in 2010.

He wanted to continue using those skills, so he stopped by the Red Cross. “I volunteered for a number of years to be on call for local fires and disasters,” Pohl said. “It’s rewarding and it’s shocking, because unless you’ve experienced yourself a fire or flooding, you don’t realize what a catastrophic thing that is to people’s lives.” He parlayed that experience at the national level, helping to run a Red Cross shelter outside White Plains, New York, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Pohl, who’s also a community watch volunteer with the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office, started working on Sound the Alarm about three years ago. The campaign has installed more than 1.4 million smoke detectors nationwide since 2014. The program—free to residents—is funded by donors and corporate partners.

Since the local chapter helped pilot the program, “We’ve averaged probably about 1,200 alarms per year,” Cook said. In Fairfield and Hocking counties, Pohl said, “I would say we’ve installed over 1,000 smoke alarms.”

It’s making a difference—and saving lives. “In the Columbus area, we’ve had a couple of documented saves,” Cook said, where a detector has helped someone escape a fire.

Pohl organizes door-to-door canvasses in fire-prone areas, working with church groups, the United Way and fire departments. He also makes presentations to organizations such as Meals on Wheels and home-health-care agencies through his role as a Red Cross community volunteer leader.

At a recent canvass in the Lancaster Campground area, 20 volunteers visited more than 230 residences in six hours. “We installed 61 smoke alarms [and] did education in each home that we visited,” Pohl said. Even if residents say they have a smoke detector, the team aims to provide fire-safety information and verify whether the equipment is functional. Residents who aren’t home get a door hanger and can call to set up a later visit. “I’ve installed … almost 300 through private appointments,” Pohl said.

He also has forged memorandums of understanding with four local fire departments and an HVAC company to install detectors for the Red Cross. “You’d be amazed at how many people either don’t have them or … people don’t know you’re supposed to replace them after 10 years,” said Capt. KJ Watts, EMS captain with the Lancaster Fire Department.

“He’s really an innovator,” said Joyce Guenther, a Red Cross board member. “He’s always thinking about a different way to get more people involved.”

“It’s pretty easy to retire and just continue to do the things that you’re comfortable with,” Pohl said. “I think there was probably some desire to always do things that took me a little bit out of my comfort zone, out of what I was used to doing. And you’re doing it knowing you’re doing it for the right reasons with a great organization, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”