Community, State Mourn Death Of Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue Chief William Halstead
Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue (SHVFR) Chief William “Bill” Halstead was known for his commanding demeanor when he was on duty, but he was also known for his compassion and dry sense of humor among most close friends and family members who knew him well, and those friends and family members certainly number in the hundreds.
Halstead, who was also Newtown’s Director of Emergency Management and a long-serving Newtown Fire Marshal until his retirement in 2016, died late Friday evening, July 8, at his home.
A post on the fire company’s social media site states: “After responding to a call on the evening of Friday, July 8, the chief returned to his home and became ill. Despite the efforts of SHVFR personnel, Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Newtown Police Department officers, the Newtown paramedic, and the Newtown Emergency Communications Center team, Chief Halstead passed shortly after the incident.”
A lifelong local resident, Halstead was serving his 45th year as chief of the independent fire company, one of five chartered in Newtown.
A longstanding member of Connecticut State Firefighters Association (CSFA), Halstead was elected president in 2020. Prior to that he served as the association’s second vice president and first vice president. He also served several years ago as Fairfield County Fire Chiefs Emergency Plan president and vice president. He was inducted into CSFA’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
In addition to serving as chief of Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue, he was a member of Connecticut Fire Marshals Association, Connecticut Fire Chiefs, International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Arson Investigators, Fairfield County Chiefs (and past president), Fairfield/New Haven County Fire Marshals Association, and Connecticut Parade Marshals.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal issued the following statement on the afternoon of Saturday, July 9: “I am shocked and saddened at the news of Chief Halstead’s passing.”
“Not only was Bill the center of his family’s universe, he was, without question, the foundation of Newtown’s emergency services apparatus. In his 44 years as Sandy Hook Chief [57 years as a member], he led the department admirably and with distinction and built an extended family in the process,” the first selectman stated.
“Bill always provided me with sound advice and I always slept well knowing Bill was our Emergency Management Director. His gifts to Newtown are immeasurable. I will miss hearing ‘401 [his call sign] is on,’ all the time on the scanner, but I will miss his smile and friendship most. My sincere condolences to his wife, Debbie, his family, and his Sandy Hook family,” Rosenthal concluded.
Halstead retired as fire chief of Fairfield Hills in 1997, where he also served as assistant chief. Halstead told The Newtown Bee in a 2019 feature that he joined SHVFR on his 16th birthday.
“I joined the fire company because my whole family was involved in the fire company,” he said. “My aunts, my mother, and my grandmother were in the auxiliary, and my uncles were in the company. Years ago, my father was in the company, and my brother was in the fire company.”
During the mid-1960s, when Halstead joined SHVFR, fire companies were very active in the town’s social scene, he said. Dances, tag sales, even carnivals were all regularly hosted by the town’s different companies.
“There were a lot of family-oriented events,” he said. “You look at all the companies, and they were hosting a lot of different events.”
Until his passing Friday, Halstead continued to set the bar for the firefighters in Sandy Hook, regularly appearing at the top of the monthly stats for call responses.
Among the members of the company is his daughter, Karin, who is SHVFR’s EMS Captain. Halstead’s wife is Debbie Aurelia Halstead, a member of the company’s Ladies Auxiliary and Newtown’s elected Town Clerk.
He has another daughter, Krista; a son, Bill Jr; and his grandchildren, Ryan and Nathan Halstead, Eliza and Evelyn Earle, and Emma Guilfoil.
(See full obituary for service information.)
As news emerged about Halstead’s death, social media was flooded with people expressing their condolences, sharing fond memories, and posting photos. The Newtown Bee’s initial report was published online July 9, and as of July 13 it received roughly 430 reactions and more than 50 comments and shares each.
Many reached out to the newspaper directly, including NECC Director and Emergency Director Maureen Will, who knew Halstead personally and professionally for more than 50 years. The two grew up in the same neighborhood, and Halstead was friends with her older brother.
“When he was at Fairfield Hills as the chief of their fire company, he was known for making sure staff cleaned the dryer vents and that was always the first thing he checked out during inspections. I know this as my mom worked there as a supervisor and knew him quite well. That fire safety tip was brought home,” Will said.
“He was also known for making sure the patients were never afraid when his personnel had to be on the wards and lending a hand to staff, answering questions about fire safety. It was a different time back then, but he was always the same, and he knew people counted on him,” Will added.
Will had the chance to work with Halstead professionally, first while she was in Brookfield PD as the Support Services Captain and a Deputy Emergency Management Director.
“That was the start of our professional relationship and a growing bond of respect and mentorship that has grown and gotten stronger,” Will said. The two then worked together in Newtown when she was hired as Director of the NECC and the Newtown Emergency Management team.
“No matter what role we were in together, we always said we would “...agree to disagree” and work together to resolve conflicts, policy, and issues. Together, we came up with formal policy and procedures for all companies and the dispatch staff,” Will said. “We talked about and conducted training for our personnel and hashed out issues, always ending with a thank you -—a laugh about something, and me saying, ‘I’ll get it right for you, Chief.’”
She acknowledged, “Many of us have lost an anchor.”
“I sat at the table [with him] and my voice was always heard by him; he taught me well as he has taught others. I will hear his voice in my head and heart, and along with staff will hear it in our headsets. But I will miss talking with him, the bantering and yes, the discussions, which were always open, honest, heated at times, but respectful. I am honored to have called him a friend, and will always remember lessons learned at the table ... No one will fill his boots, nor should they, they were his boots, but will walk next to his footprints, forging a new and maybe different path, but a path with a firm foundation made from a strong leader, guide, and friend.”
Newtown Health Department Director and fellow Emergency Director Donna Culbert expressed her shock for Halstead’s sudden passing and that it is a reminder for how precious life is.
“Thinking about Bill reminds me to live my life with purpose and passion, that family is priority one, and to do my best at everything I do. And try to find some humor,” she said. “Bill was a hero. I was always in awe of his command. I told many people over the years, I trust that man with my life.
“He was a true professional, he expected a lot, he compelled me to be a better person, and a better professional," she continued. "He treated me with so much respect, like I was his equal and more, he wanted my opinion and my partnership. He wanted me ‘at the table’ all the years I have known him. I learned a lot from him, and I think he learned some things from me, too.”
Culbert described their friendship as special and unique, and that they shared many laughs, heartbreaks, and triumphs together. She concluded, “We have much richer lives for having known him, worked with him, loved him, and been loved by him.”
Former longtime Newtown Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Kevin A. Cragin met Halstead back when he was a teenager hanging out at his cousins at family gatherings and later at firehouse-sponsored Yankees and Mets games.
“In the late 70s I was on the Newtown Board of Fire Commissioners and Bill was Chief of SHVF&R. I was on the Board for 37 years and during all that time I worked with Bill. Talking and meeting with Bill weekly turned into a great relationship,” Cragin said.
“Up until his death we still met for coffee, played golf, and hung out at the firehouse. Friday, the day he died, we met at the firehouse for ‘secret coffee’ with other fire personnel and had a fun-filled morning with happy memories.”
Botsford Fire Rescue Chief Andrew White said Halstead was "one of the most well respected and involved members of the fire service that I have ever met. It was a privilege to work alongside him.”
Chief of Newtown Hook & Ladder (H&L) Chris “Tug” Ward has been in the fire service since 1989 and a member in Newtown since 2008. While he admits that his first encounter with Halstead “wasn’t positive,” he always saw how much Halstead’s members listened to their chief with sincere respect.
“I am always amazed at the number of members and level of productivity in their firehouse during work details and drills. This is a testament to the respect his members had for him. It wasn’t for his position but for him personally. It cannot be stated how unique this is in today’s fire service,” Ward said.
He noted that since becoming chief of his department, the two developed a great working relationship based on mutual respect, and that he found counsel when speaking with Halstead.
“When someone speaks of the fire service in Newtown, Chief Halstead’s name is at the top of the list,” Ward concluded.
SHVFR President Brad Richardson said he knew Halstead for most of his life, starting when Richardson’s father would take him to the firehouse — then located on Glen Road — in the 1960s.
“When I joined the fire department in 1976, he actually was not Chief. That is hard to believe. Bill ate, slept, and breathed the fire service. He fought the fires, he drove the trucks, he even sold fire trucks,” Richardson said. “When the alarm sounded, he was always the first to respond. Some thought he slept with his boots on.”
He attributes Halstead for putting the Sandy Hook Fire Company on the map and that as a leader, Halstead never tip-toed around his words. While this may have caused “some friction” between the two at times, they developed a rapport and mutual respect for one another.
Richardson said Halstead “became one of my closest friends and companions. We attended many social events together, played golf together and travelled together.
"There is now a void in my life that cannot be filled but nowhere near the void left in the fire service. Bill Halstead will be sorely missed.”
Chief And Mentor
SHVFR Deputy Chief Anthony Capozziello was 16 years old when he joined the organization in June 1992. It was there that he met Halstead and gained a father figure along with a friend with the chief's daughter, Karin.
Capozziello and Karin Halstead later nominated their chief for the State of Connecticut Firefighter Hall of Fame, a high honor in the field.
Over the years, Capozziello shared many memories with Halstead both professionally and personally. The two enjoyed summers on Capozziello’s boat, as well as annual Memorial Day picnics at Halstead’s house. One of his favorite memories was their 2003 trip to Florida.
“He used to be a fire truck salesman, and I went to Florida with him and the Truck Committee to inspect Engine 442. We still have that truck today,” he said. “We went on that trip and even though we were on business, we had the best time with him. That truck will be what we are carrying him on for the funeral.”
Capozziello recalls how last year his own father died before Christmas, and Halstead — who he always called Chief, never Bill — was there for him in his time of need.
“He would check on me all the time, and he’d also check on my dad throughout when he was sick. It meant a lot that he cared so much about me and my dad during that difficult time,” he said. “Now I will be here for him. I want to pay him back for being that way. Within about six months I lost my dad and I lost my second dad.”
Archie Paloian, a longtime member of the fire company and its current vice president, said, “Not only was he our chief, he was a mentor and a friend!”
Lisa Goosman, former longtime member of the Board of Fire Commissioners, said that even though the two “started off locking horns” they grew to be good friends.
“Bill was an opinionated person,” she said. “As time went on, we grew to respect each other and our different opinions.”
Goosman remembers fondly how the last time they had a chance to talk was at the 2022 LobsterFest, and that it was devastating learning of his passing.
“It’s a great loss for Sandy Hook and the entire town. He contributed so much … I’m going to miss him, as is everyone else,” she said.
Former Newtown resident Bernie Meehan, who is now a fire chief in Danbury, was a longtime friend of Halstead.
“I grew up in Newtown and joined the Newtown Hook & Ladder at 16, and Bill was chief of Sandy Hook then. Even though he was the chief of Sandy Hook, he was the constant in town … he’s always been the boss since the beginning, and everyone knew him to be the boss. If a call was in another district, he came and helped or took command,” Meehan said.
Meehan noted that while other departments had chiefs come and go, Halstead remained a steady leader.
“He really was the face of Newtown fire service. He went beyond Newtown and was involved in every state organization that was involved in the fire service … he touched a lot of lives,” he said.
“He was knowledgeable, and he was available to people. I looked up to him and called him at times for help or advice. I know I’m not the only guy who did that.
"He was a father figure to everybody … It really is a devastating loss for Sandy Hook, both the fire department and the community, and the Town of Newtown," he added. “He wore huge boots and they will be impossible to fill.”
Former First Selectman Herb Rosenthal shared that the two met when they were youngsters and that he worked very closely with Halstead during his time as Newtown’s first selectman.
“We created the Emergency Management System for the town, and I appointed him as the Managing Director … he was great to work with. I never had to worry about anything with emergency management, because Bill was there taking charge and giving great advice,” Herb said. “Bill was also appointed as Fire Marshal when I was there.”
Additionally, he recalls how after going to a conference to learn about a CodeRed emergency communications, he informed Halstead about it and asked him if the town should use it for communicating during disasters.
“In typical form, Bill did a thorough review, and we did. It is the system that the Town has used effectively ever since,” the senior Rosenthal said.
He also describes Halstead as a dear friend with a great personality and sense of humor.
“It’s a great loss to his family, his children, and wife Debbie, and loss for the fire company and to the town as a whole," Rosenthal said. "He will be sorely missed.”