By Max Sullivan
Hampton Union, December 1, 2015
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON — Former Hampton Fire Chief William “Skip” Sullivan was honored for his 46 years in fire rescue this month, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award by the New Hampshire Fire Academy.
The award was given out during a Nov. 5 ceremony at the academy in Concord. Sullivan was chief in Hampton from 1987 to 1999. He also was a fire chief in three other communities: Claremont, Bedford, Mass., and Rye.
Still a Hampton resident, Sullivan said the award is an honor. Hampton selectmen also said this month they would dedicate the 2016 town report to Sullivan.
“I’d rather be giving praise than receiving it. I don’t have a real big ego, but I was honored,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, 72, first became a full-time firefighter in 1968 with the Hampton Fire Department. Before that, he had been a call firefighter in Newburyport, Mass., and in the Coast Guard stationed in Gloucester, Mass. He left Hampton as a captain in 1977 to take on his first chief job in Claremont, where he stayed until he took another chief position in Bedford, Mass. In 1987, he returned to Hampton as chief, where he served until 1999. He became interim chief in Rye from 2007 until he retired in 2014.
Sullivan got a wide range of experience by serving in all four different communities. Claremont was an old mill city with a lot of three deck-tenements, while Bedford was more of an upscale community outside of Boston.
Hampton was unique, he said, for its seasonal beach community. Not only did the population jump in the summer unlike any other community he’d been in, but the old wooden buildings at Hampton Beach made the beach area especially susceptible to fire.
In the late 1980s, Sullivan recalled a serial arsonist who lit fires almost every week in Hampton, especially in the beach area. The Fire Department knew the arsonist was using a form of camp stove fluid to light the fires, but they couldn’t track the suspect down. Then, a woman was arrested trying to light a fire near the corner of Lafayette Road and High Street.
“Every week there was a fire on Hampton Beach for a six-month period,” Sullivan recalled.
One of Sullivan’s saddest memories was from 1976, when two children were lost in a fire on the corner of Ashworth Avenue and I Street. The home’s gas had accidentally been shut off by the utility company, and the mother was heating the home with an electric stove. When the mother left the house with the electric stove running, combustible material near the stove caught fire. Only one of the three children survived.
“It was a sad day,” Sullivan said.
Today, firefighters have counseling available to them after a traumatic experience. Sullivan said that wasn’t the case 38 years ago. Firefighters had to put their tough experiences behind them on their own.
“You just do the job, and then afterwards you reflect on it, and sometimes it just gets to you for a period of time,” Sullivan said. “Today, (fire officers) would be sitting down with the firefighters involved, debriefing them, try to get them back on track, but we just lived with it then. We didn’t have any counseling.”
Sullivan stays close to the Hampton Fire Department today. Sometimes, he’ll be seen at fires in town, watching from the sidewalk. He doesn’t consider himself a “sidewalk fire chief,” though, as he has a lot of respect for Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte and his department.
“I think Chief Ayotte has made some great changes in Emergency Medical Services with Nate Denio, with the fire prevention officer, Bill Paine, and I think the relationship with the community in general in Hampton has improved a lot in the last year,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he is happy with the career he had and loved what he did. Today, he still gets the urge to go fight a blaze when he hears a fire is going on.
“I feel bad for people that drag themselves to work every day and hate their job, because life seems to go by forever like that,” Sullivan said. “The career I had seemed like it went by in a flash.”