It was just after 3:30 a.m., still hours from sunrise, but the fire kindling outside a building in Salem was already so large that its column of smoke was immediately spotted by Roanoke College Campus Safety Officer Robert Ross.
Ross, a retired police captain and seven-year veteran of the Office of Campus Safety, was conducting a routine patrol of the College’s off-campus maintenance and shop facilities when he saw the smoke rising in the air.
He immediately diverted course, tracking the smoke to its source, a structure in the 400 block of 9th Street. There, flames were jumping about 20 feet in the air, consuming several vehicles and spreading to a fence and a porch.
Fire crews summoned by Ross later described it as a significant scene. “They say fire doubles in size every minute,” said Salem Fire-EMS Chief John Prillaman. “I can’t imagine what that fire would have been if we had been there 10 minutes later.”
Ross, after reporting the fire to emergency responders, went a step further and pounded on the building’s doors. Four people were inside. Each was rousted and made it out safely.
Ross went above and beyond in his response to that Sept. 25 blaze, Prillaman said. In a commendation presented this week, city of Salem leaders credited his quick action with saving lives.
The commendation, presented Oct. 17 in a ceremony held outside Salem Fire-EMS Station 1, praised Ross’ response as heroic.
Ross, for his part, said he did what any of his fellow campus safety officers would have done in those circumstances. Each of Roanoke College’s officers are veteran law enforcement professionals who bring decades of experience to the job.
Ross worked for the Suffolk Police Department for 26 years before joining the Office of Campus Safety in 2015.
“It was just a blessing to be in the right place at the right time,” he said of the 9th Street fire.
That humble demeanor is characteristic of Ross’ approach to his work, said Director of Campus Safety Joseph Mills.
“He is someone who has truly spent his life serving other people,” Mills said, adding he had been proud, but not surprised, when he learned what Ross had done.
“That’s the kind of person that he is,” Mills said. “He’s a very experienced officer and has that instinct to help.”
Ross is a “shining example” of the high level of training and skill brought to bear by the campus safety team, Mills added. “This is what we do,” he said. “We’re here to serve whether it’s for Roanoke College or for the overall community.”
The response to the fire illustrated the close working partnership maintained between the Office of Campus Safety and the city of Salem’s emergency responders. The agencies collaborate in many ways, not just in times of emergency but in training operations, safety protocols and more.
Those relationships are “huge” when an emergency does strike, said Prillaman. Because Ross sounded the alarm in the 9th Street fire, crews were able to respond swiftly and get the fire under control in about 30 minutes.
“I always say that you tend to work with somebody better when you’re on a first-name basis with them,” said Prillaman, who referred to Ross as Rob throughout the commendation presentation. “We’re lucky to have a great relationship with campus safety.”
The commendation ceremony was punctuated by laughter and inside jokes. In addition to the recognition, city firefighters and police presented Ross with a Salem Fire-EMS mug, a plastic fire truck and a novelty fire helmet.
Ross said the attention was something he had never expected. When city officials reached out to organize the event, he said, “I was surprised, but very appreciative of them wanting to do it.”
Ross, an avid outdoorsman, is a graduate of Virginia Tech and set his sights on returning to the region and the mountain peaks he had grown to love after his retirement from the Suffolk Police Department.
In addition to his work at Roanoke College, he is a supporter of the Virginia Special Olympics and often represents the campus in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run and Polar Plunge events for that nonprofit.
Commendation Presentation for Campus Safety Officer Robert Ross