Polkonline.com

City's fire marshal knows fire first-hand
By SANDI MARTIN
smartin@newschief.com


WINTER HAVEN -- When Bill Sigler was 7 years old in Illinois, his family's apartment caught fire.

Waking up during the night, he could hear his father coughing in his sleep from the choking smoke, which by that point had risen a few feet off the floor.

The culprit? An electrical short behind an overstuffed couch, which he and his father pushed out a window and "watched it burst into flames as it hit the ground.

"At the time, I remember being very scared," Sigler recalls.

As assistant chief of the Winter Haven Fire Department, Sigler's fears about how destructive fire can be have been proven over and over again.

He says there are two things he'd rather not be around: Fire and rattlesnakes.

"They're both dangerous," Sigler explained. "But know how they act and know what they do and we'll be OK."

As a fire inspector for more than two decades, he's had plenty of time to learn all about fire. But he wasn't always an expert on the dangers of blazes and flames.

Now 54, Sigler has gone from a college flunk-out to sailor to journalist. It was only after one radio job ended and he took a temporary position with the city that he became a fire inspector.

He's never regretted it. His job is to ensure the safety of the public, do fire investigations and educate the public about fire safety.

"It's just a fun job," he said. "You actually get to see an impact on people's lives."

Born William Francis "Bill" Sigler Jr. in Ottawa, Ill., on July 28, 1948, he's one of three kids raised in nearby Marseilles.

Sigler was a three-letter athlete in high school -- football, basketball and track -- and he enrolled in Western Illinois University for a year before flunking out because of botany.

"Back then you had to maintain a full 2.0 on a 4.0 scale, and back then I was struggling," he explained. "I got a full failing mark and that's all it took."

He enrolled in a community college and eventually graduated with two associate degrees -- in art and another in pre-education -- before moving on to the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, where he saw his draft number coming up.

Rather than be drafted into the army, Sigler enlisted in the navy "thinking I would save myself from the sweaty jungles of Vietnam."

He ended up there anyway after the USS America, the ship he was assigned to, was diverted from the Mediterranean to spend 14 months off the coast of Vietnam.

"But I wasn't so inland, so I was fortunate," he said. "But I got to see the world."

Sigler was discharged from the service in 1974, and he returned to college. He graduated with a degree in journalism and took a job as a sportswriter at a little newspaper in Wood River, Ill. But remembering sunny Florida -- where he'd been stationed -- he moved south, taking a job as a city reporter for the News Chief.

That was in the late 1970s, when it was "hairy times" for the city, he said.

Sigler moved on to news director for WZNG Radio, but when the station was about to be sold, he had to find other work.

That's when he took a temporary job for the city's leisure services department, researching the chain of lakes. Fire Chief Charlie Brown approached him for a fire inspector's job, offering him $11,700 a year.

Sigler started on Feb. 8, 1982.

"And I've been doing it ever since," he said.

Sigler enjoys his job, even though it's not the cleanest job with normal working hours.

"Fire inspecting is just dirty," he said. "It's just nasty work. And you don't get to do it when it's light, usually. It's in the middle of the night, 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning when everybody else is asleep."

In the past 20 years, he's seen some interesting cases. He testified as an expert witness in the trial of an arsonist who burned churches in Colorado, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. For the past couple of years, he's been working to improve safety in Polk County schools after local fire departments were given the responsibility by the state.

"It was apparent in the past whoever was responsible for doing fire inspections was not following their own rules," he said. "Minimum maintenance was not being done."

In the past couple of years, Sigler has seen things improve in the schools, with sprinkler systems being fixed or retrofitted, and teachers limiting the flammable material they put on the walls.

During his off-time, Sigler enjoys time outside with his family -- his wife of 14 years, Lucy, 10-year-old son Charlie and 9-year-old daughter Cindy Lee.

He coaches his son's baseball team, golfs and fishes, and loves to watch his kids snorkel. The family's looking forward to quality time spent in the pool that has just been installed at their home.

And they've just welcomed a somewhat new addition to the family: William Francis Sigler Sr., who has just moved in with them from Illinois.

"He's a permanent member of our family," Sigler said.