From engineer to firefighter
Not all career firefighters have spent their careers fighting fire. Recently promoted Wilton Fire Department Lt. Bill Sampson would be one example. Before joining the department in 2003, he spent 20 years as a field service engineer.
Though his father had been a volunteer firefighter for the first 13 years of his son’s life, “my goal was to be a pilot,” Sampson, a resident of Windsor Locks, said. Studying engineering at Central Connecticut State University, for him, was thus a means to that end.
In fact, as a high school senior, Sampson joined the Connecticut Air National Guard, the air force militia of the state, and served his country by analyzing military intelligence for seven years before being honorably discharged as a non-commissioned staff sergeant.
Things “went astray,” however, during Sampson’s sophomore year in college. He developed nearsightedness, and his dream of becoming a pilot was forever lost.
“I was disillusioned. I wasn’t going to meet my goal of being a pilot because of my eyes. I was in college; I wanted a job; I wanted to go out into the world and make something of myself like everyone else,” Sampson said.
With that in mind, he left Central in 1983 to pursue a nuclear field service technician position at the now defunct Windsor-based firm Combustion Engineering. That’s where it all began.
“That got me my skill set,” Sampson said. “We were required to do machining, basic welding, basic design, and to be proficient in all venues of electromechanical engineering.”
“Burnt out” after three years there, Sampson took a layoff, applied and was accepted into the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, figuring that as an air traffic controller he could at least be involved in aeronautics, aviation being out of the question.
But when his second phase of training was about to begin, Sampson decided that air traffic control, like nuclear field service, just wasn’t for him, and so he got back into engineering, this time aerospace engineering, accepting an aerospace explosives research technician position at Ensign-Bickford Aerospace in Simsbury.
“That introduced me to aerospace,” said Sampson, “but I nearly blew my hand off one day and decided that position wasn’t the best one to be in either.”
Sampson then applied to and was hired by aerospace component manufacturer Bauer Inc., where he designed and built jet engine component test benches.
There, Sampson was responsible for the builds as well as flying with those builds to wherever they were purchased, installing them and training the professionals who would be using them.
“It was a comprehensive cradle-tothe- grave process,” said Sampson. “It was incredibly fun; I can’t tell you how enjoyable it was, especially getting to travel to multiple countries.”
After 10 years with Bauer, Sampson decided to pursue an opportunity given him by Turbine Controls, an aircraft repair station now in Bloomfield, joining as the company’s facilities test engineer, a position responsible for ensuring products passed tests and maintaining all shop floor requirements.
In 1995, while still employed at Turbine Controls, Sampson, following in his father’s footsteps, started fighting fire as a volunteer with the Hazardville Fire Department in Enfield.
Five years later, Sampson was promoted to facilities health and safety manager at Turbine, “going from making money for a company to spending it.” That’s where his engineering career ended. Sampson took a layoff from Turbine in 2002 and spent a year trying to get back into aerospace engineering before deciding to run with “something that had been itching at the back of [his] mind for years.”
Unsure of his next move, “I was starting to spend more time developing my skills as a volunteer firefighter,” Sampson said. “The urge to go career had been there for a while but I had not yet pursued it.”
The Turbine layoff, according to Sampson, provided the thrust necessary to propel him as he was then into full-time fire service, and the Wilton Fire Department hired him as a firefighter in 2003.
Sampson was 40 years old at the time, and while he insisted that “a lot of guys my age and older have gone through recruit class for Wilton and other departments,” he was willing to agree that there were, in fact, certain challenges inherent to his situation.
“There were a lot of aches, pains, and Advil,” Sampson said. “I was an engineer; I wasn’t used to eight hours a day, five days a week of physical conditioning. I had to get myself back in shape.”
That said, Sampson went modestly on to further proclaim the insignificanceof his story as compared to those of his fellow firefighters, in Wilton and elsewhere.
“When I first started, sure, it was later than a lot of people did. But things change; people have grown healthier. I’m a babe in the woods now.”
Sampson agreed to be interviewed only on the condition the story would help the Wilton Fire Department in some way. When asked for his opinion of the agency, he gave nothing but compliments.
“It’s the smartest, best trained, bravest group of guys that I’ve ever worked with,” Sampson said, “doubly so when you consider the amount of people that we have on duty, which is a very small number.”
“As I said during my promotion,” he continued, “I honestly and sincerely believe you could take any one of the guys in the Wilton Fire Department, drop them in any department in the country, and within three to five years they would easily be promoted to officers. That’s how qualified and proficient I think they are.”
While Sampson attributed his career shift in part to the “subconscious seed” planted in his head by his father, he admitted there were other forces at work, too “One of the reasons I became a career firefighter is I missed the camaraderie and professionalism that I had come to expect and really to admire when I was in service,” he said before mentioning another reason some might find more characteristic of Sampson as a person.
“I wanted to be in a position where, at the end of the day, I knew I did something good for somebody, whether it was something as extravagant as fighting a fire, or something as simple as giving somebody directions,” Sampson said.
Bill Sampson has been an instructor in the recruit program at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Suffield for nine years. He teaches two 16-week recruit classes each year, one in the spring and and one in the fall.
To this day, Sampson volunteers for the Windsor Locks Fire Department.