'Skip' Sullivan Set Standard For Fire Chiefs

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Commentary on the Hampton Fire Chief
William "Skip" Sullivan

By Steve Haberman, Herald Sunday, October 4, 1998

[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

In some dictionary somewhere, next to the definition of a public servant, there must be a small, but detailed photograph of Hampton Fire Chief William "Skip" Sullivan. And if there isn't, there certainly should be. In keeping with the old adage that we don't really miss something until it's gone, it is obvious we won't recognize the true effects of Sullivan's retirement until after its effective date on Jan. 1 (1999). But we know the anticipated hole this man will leave in town government will far exceed the expectations voiced by municipal officials and fellow department heads.

He will truly be missed.

Sullivan is the consummate professional in all aspects of his public life.

As a fire chief, his skill, knowledge, long-range planning ability and, perhaps the attribute most in short supply these days, his common sense approach to running his department, have made Hampton the envy of departments around the state.

As a longtime reporter covering the Seacoast, I have been at countless small and large fires at which the Hampton department was present. It appears that even when it is a mutual aid call to a surrounding town, once Sullivan and his men are on the scene, the control for dealing with the blaze shifts perceptibly to the Hampton department.

The environment in which Seacoast fire departments operate is unique. There are more older, wooden structures in this area than in most others around the country, and the nature of the summer tourist season makes each fire, however small, a potential disaster.

I've stood and watched Hampton firefighters deal with a beach hotel fully involved in flames and located, literally, just feet from another wood framed structure. When it was all over, the first structure was a total loss, but the adjacent building had little more than a few scorch burns on it. There is no greater tribute that can be paid to the Hampton firefighters operating under Sullivan's command.

I've also seen the quality of Hampton's emergency medical services escalate dramatically under Sullivan's guidance. He was always an advocate for more and better equipment. Hampton residents and visitors to the town can now be assured of some of the best on-scene emergency care available anywhere.

But aside from Skip Sullivan's abilities as a leader and firefighter, there is Skip Sullivan the man.

In all the time I've covered Hampton news (almost two decades, now), I have never met an individual who was more of a gentleman than Skip Sullivan. The internal political machinations of Hampton town government, something of almost legendary proportions, did not interest this fire chief.

It's not that he didn't have opinions; this is a man who has strong feelings about what is right and what is wrong. It is just that he kept them to him self, sharing them only with those he trusted would keep his confidence.

When the Beach Precinct commissioners proposed a new bay at the beach fire station, Sullivan thought the idea was ludicrous. But, aside from answering questions directly put to him by beach residents, he kept his opinions to himself. He always trusted the voters to make the right decision and, more often than not, he was right to do so.

While some town officials make a career of taking potshots at their colleagues and employees, in all the years I've known Sullivan, he always took the high road. To him it was solving the problem that was the issue, not who was to blame.

He was both a godsend to local media and a heartache.

Despite how busy things got at a fire, if a reporter hung around long enough for the chief to break free, he would always take time to answer whatever questions he could in as complete detail as possible. But he would offer nothing more than an answer to the reporter's question, and would give only facts, not speculations,

Even in the heat of the kinds of political debates Sullivan had with former Selectman Arthur Moody over budget issues and equipment requests, the chief never attacked, he simply countered, and most often, won the debate and the support of the voters at Town Meeting.

And Sullivan's dry sense of humor, puckish smile, and friendly ways endeared him to the men who worked for him. While there were always grievances and salary disputes, there was little doubt of the high esteem in which Hampton firefighters hold their chief.

When Skip Sullivan packs his office up at the end of this year and heads off for some form of what is sure to be an active retirement, it will mark the end of an era in Hampton. No one can fill the space he will leave behind. We can only hope the town's next fire chief can come close.

(Steve Haberman, a former editor of the Hampton Union,
is a part-time copy editor for Seacoast Newspapers.)
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