Sonny Scarff Remembered as Passionate Fire Protection Advocate

July 4, 2024
As Marriott's vice president of fire and life safety, Sonny Scarff ensured hotels around the world met fire protection standards.

As many youths, he started out hanging out at his local fire department -- the Carroll Manor Volunteer Fire Company in Frederick County, MD.

He rose through the ranks to serve as ambulance captain, but John F. 'Sonny' Scarff was just getting started.

Among some of the titles that followed included career firefighter, fire officer, chief's aide and fire protection instructor.

But what Scarff, who died this week at his Rosemont, MD home, is being most remembered for being a staunch advocate of fire protection.   

As vice president of fire, life safety and security design for Marriott Hotels, Scarff travelled around the world inspecting hotels to make sure they had the proper fire protection systems and plans in order before the doors opened.

"He had the final say. If everything wasn't right, he'd stop the hotel from opening. He didn't give an inch. He didn't care if they'd already booked a wedding or conference," recalled Wayne Powell, a fellow inspector who travelled with Scarff on many trips.

"When they threatened to call one of the Marriott family members to complain, he would encourage it, and offered their number. He knew what their answer would be: 'What did Sonny say?'" Powell added with a laugh. "JW and Bill Marriott were committed to safety. Every hotel is fully sprinklered and there are other safety measures in place as well."

There are no shades of gray, and Sonny made sure people were aware of it. Being politically correct wasn't his forte.

Jay Livingston, who left Marriott to establish his own fire protection company, said he suggested Scarff take over his job because he was impressed with his no nonsense philosophy. 

"I just knew he would be a good fit, and I introduced him. I was right. He got along with them like gangbusters," he said. "I will miss him dearly."

Stacy Welch met Scarff during various test burns while she was a student in the fire protection engineering program at the University of Maryland.

She got an internship as a plan reviewer at Marriott and eventually, was offered a full-time position.

"Sonny was so passionate about protecting people...Nothing or no one would stand in his way."

She quickly learned that he also eagerly supported and mentored his team. He had their backs. No one ever doubted that. 

"In my sixth week on the job, he sent to me to Hong Kong and Guatemala. He said he had faith in me and I'd do fine," she said with a laugh. "I guess he wanted me to learn by fire."

"One time, things didn't go well and an owner called me 'little girl.' When I told him about it, he called the guy, and I know everyone on the fourth floor could hear him. He was not happy."

She added that she was honored to have been part of his team doing inspections abroad. "I learned so much from him."

When he was ready to retire after 38 years, he recommended she take his role.

"I knew I had some really big shoes to fill...It's been an honor."

Retired Montgomery County, MD, Fire Marshal Mike Love recalled: "Sonny was a unique and special individual in that he came up all the way from the bottom as a firefighter and then stepped into the highly powerful, complicated and sophisticated world of international business. He had again a unique relationship with the owner and leader of one of the most successful hospitality and lodging businesses in the world. He was so well respected by the Marriott family that he could go directly to the top and eliminate the sometimes squashing tendency of middle managers. Sonny commanded respect from firefighting forces that he worked with, commanded respect and maybe a little healthy fear from hotel managers throughout the world and commanded respect from the heads of the Marriott hospitality business. This is a rare combination of relationships in any field."

Scarff's contributions were varied.

"In addition to his operational management of Marriott Fire Protection Sonny always had visions of how to strategically achieve safety for the businesses customers and visitors to Marriott’s hotels. Sonny drove a number of tests and forays into new technology for example the efficient and cost effective retrofit of very old and challenging businesses with fire sprinklers as well as the use of fire protection water mist systems to retrofit some of the most extreme construction examples of very old buildings with massive stone walls. Leaders like Sonny Scarff are rare and in a given field only come along about every couple of generations.

About the Author

Susan Nicol | News Editor

Susan Nicol is the news editor for She is a life member and active with the Brunswick Volunteer Ambulance & Rescue Company, Oxford Fire Company and Brunswick Vol. Fire Co. Susie has been an EMT in Maryland since 1976. Susie is vice-president of the Frederick County Fire/Rescue Museum. She is on the executive committee of Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. She also is part of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS) Region II EMS Council. Susie is a board member of the American Trauma Society, Maryland Division. Prior to joining the Firehouse team, she was a staff writer for The Frederick News-Post, covering fire, law enforcement, court and legislative issues. 

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