Grosse Pointe Farms’ ‘small but mighty’ female fire specialist retires after 20-year career

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 24, 2023

 Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety Department Fire Specialist Sundee Harland stands next to the department’s newest firetruck, which she helped design.

Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety Department Fire Specialist Sundee Harland stands next to the department’s newest firetruck, which she helped design.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — At only 5 feet, 1 inch tall and 130 pounds, Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety Fire Specialist Sundee Harland didn’t look formidable. But, as she proved time and time again, looks can be deceiving.

Deputy Public Safety Director Andrew Rogers, who is also head of the city’s fire division, called Harland a valuable and “highly respected” member of the department who has “never been afraid to do an assignment or a difficult task.”

“She’s taken on every single role in the fire division,” Rogers said. “She knows those trucks inside and out. … She is the Tom Brady of our fire specialists. I’m seriously sad she’s leaving.”

The Farms’ first female fire specialist, Harland was known around the department as being “small but mighty.” She officially retired Jan. 11 after almost 20 years in the Farms — and just before her 50th birthday. But she didn’t leave the city before training her replacement, Farms public safety officer Amber Hazelton.

“She’s very detail oriented,” Rogers said. “She’s always shared her knowledge — on the fire side, on the police side.”

That included sharing what she knew with members of other public safety departments.

“When we go to mutual-aid fires, she’s there helping the other cities but in a way that doesn’t make you feel silly for not knowing (something),” Rogers said.

Harland said she wanted to retire now while she’s still able to do her strenuous job at a high level.

“Right now, I can hold my own — I want to go out that way,” Harland said. “Right now, I’m considered little but mighty. Right now, I can physically handle it all. … I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want to risk anyone else’s (safety).”

Her dedication to knowing all aspects of the job and the equipment was intrinsically tied to her awareness of the risks posed by firefighting.

“She just wants everybody to be safe,” Rogers said.

He said Harland even labeled every tool and included tips for their operation.

“You need to know (the department’s power tools) like they’re your own,” Harland said. “They all have their own quirks. You’ve got to put in the extra time to learn the equipment.”

Harland started working in the Farms before she was hired by the city in August 2003. For about eight years, Harland was a paramedic who handled EMS runs for the Farms on Medic 3, a Medstar ambulance out of what was then Henry Ford Cottage Hospital that just offered ambulatory services within Farms borders. As a result, Harland got to know and love the city and the Public Safety Department. When a fire specialist position was going to open in the Farms, she said former Farms Fire Chief Sam Candela sponsored her to go to the fire academy so that she could accept a position in the city.

As the fire specialist, Harland routinely tested and maintained the myriad fire equipment and tools, among other responsibilities. It was also her job to drive the truck to a fire scene and operate it on-site.

“Here, as an engineer, the first five to seven minutes are on your shoulders,” Harland explained. “Did you put the truck in the right position? Are there problems getting water? Is the (hose) line too long or too short? … It’s literally a matter of pulling up (to a fire) and figuring out everything right away.”

She said a fire can triple in size in just 60 seconds, so rapid response is crucial to saving lives and preserving property.

“Everything is manual,” Harland said. “It’s not like we can just push a button. It takes time to lay out the (hose lines) and get that stuff up and running.”

There were a lot of little extras that Harland brought to the job.

“I had stuff stashed all over (the firetruck) — hand warmers, extra gloves, extra socks — because you never knew how long you were going to be out there,” Harland said.

One of her proudest accomplishments was working on the team that designed the city’s new fire pumper, which was built to their specifications and arrived in November 2021. Harland was one of the people who traveled to South Dakota — where the Rosenbauer FX Pumper was manufactured — to select the vehicle’s equipment, cabinets, lights and more.

As Rogers, who was also on the team that designed the truck, explained in 2020, the new pumper includes a fill station on the truck that can fill air bottles at the scene; a separate, built-in foam tank to battle oil and certain house fires; and a remote-controlled light tower that “turns the darkness into daylight” so firefighters can clearly see a fire scene at night.

“I’m so grateful I got to be a part of building that beautiful, awesome truck,” Harland said.

The truck is expected to serve the city for the next 20-plus years, as its predecessor did.

After two decades in firefighting, Harland takes precautions in her own life to prevent fires, including never using real candles — only battery-operated ones — and never leaving a washing machine, dryer, dishwasher or other appliance running when no one’s home.

Although she grew up in Warren, far from horse country, Harland said she’s loved horses since she was little, and she has her own horse at home. An animal lover in general, she also has two barn cats, two house cats and a Great Dane who “thinks he’s a horse,” she said with a grin.

In recent years, Harland — who worked 24-hour shifts in the Farms — has been working a second job as a counselor for a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Memphis, Michigan.

“It’s not an easy job,” Harland acknowledged. “Some days, you feel like you’ve gone through war.”

She said it’s opened her eyes to how easily and quickly anyone can get sucked into the cycle of addiction.

“I don’t cast judgement on any person who walks in there,” Harland said. “I’m there to help them.”

Although Harland plans to keep working at the rehab center, she expects to reduce the number of shifts she works.

In retirement, Harland — who lives on a 7-acre property in Avoca, a township northwest of Port Huron — hopes to spend more time with her horse and her husband, Kenny, a retired roofer and business owner. They’ll be celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in 2023. Because of Harland’s work schedule — between her two jobs, she estimated she’s been working 120 to 130 hours per week — they’ve only been able to have dinner together a couple of times a month.

“He’s looking forward to us having dinner together like a normal couple,” Harland said.

Harland will miss her co-workers but not the stress of the job or her hour-long commute to work. She said she’s looking forward to spending more time with friends and family, including helping her mom, who lives in Florida.

She and her husband also hope to take extended motorcycle trips — something they both enjoy.

“I know that we’re only getting older and there’s so much we want to do,” Harland said.