Sample concludes 36-year career as Lake Oswego firefighter

by: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Phil Sample has answered his last bell for the Lake Oswego Fire Department. He has presided over some important innovations that have modernized the LOFD.It is hard to believe, but at one time Phil Sample was known as “the kid at the Lake Oswego Fire Department.

When he started at the LOFD 36 years ago he was long, lean, lanky and lovable, just like he is today. But he was only 27 years old and had a lot of ropes to learn.

At one of his first fires, Sample was just in the act of putting on his breathing apparatus, which would have taken about 30 seconds, when he was grabbed around the collar by an old-school fireman, who said, “C’mon kid. There’s no time for that crap.”

With a lot of suffering, Sample managed to make it through the fire, coughing, spitting and practically dragging his nose on the floor to avoid the thick, choking smoke.

His veteran partner was not impressed.

“Maybe you should take up smoking,” the man advised. “Two packs a day.”

Sample did not take up smoking. Instead, he played a key role in transforming the department over four decades and has seen a drastic upgrade in safety for both the public and firefighters. Sample’s efforts, as firefighter, fire chief and fire marshal, have made Lake Oswego a different and safer city. But today his career comes to an end.

“I am really, really proud of our department,” Sample said. “I feel good about it. Gert Zoutendijk is taking over as fire marshal and he has made a priority of customer service. I think he’ll do a better job than me. He’s been here 14 years and I think he’s ready.”

Sample’s skill at public relations has been a major benefit. But when he became fire marshal 17 years ago, he said, “When I started I asked, ‘What was I thinking? Nobody likes fire marshals.’”

They ended up liking Sample, who rates his displeasure rate over the years at “less than 1 percent.” Instead of pounding his desk and demanding business people do it his way, he has worked to find alternative solutions that achieve the same degree of protection.

To come to know Sample is to not be surprised that his first career was in the ministry. His father was a minister and Sample was ready to follow in his footsteps, earning degrees at First Christian College and Texas Christian University. That preparation gave him the skills for his very challenging first job as a youth pastor in Oakridge. Sample specialized in marriage and family counseling, which was badly needed in Oakridge, where economic times were turning tough.

“After three years it was overwhelming,” Sample said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I missed my calling.’”

Sample moved to the Portland area and did a bit of ambling. A new door soon opened for him.

“I had offers from the Lake Oswego Fire Department and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office,” Sample said. “Lake Oswego was beginning to get into education and fire prevention, and they thought I had a great background for it. I also had my basic EMT. The fire department was right up my alley. It was definitely the right way to go.”

Instead of suggesting taking up smoking as a way for firefighters to toughen up their lungs, Sample worked at teaching and obtaining better equipment, with an emphasis on safety. He introduced better tactics and strategy.

“In the past, things would go wrong and the firemen would do something to make things worse,” Sample said. “Now we have better risk assessments.”

Sample will have plenty of good stories to take into his retirement.

“There has been some wild stuff,” he said. “One time there was an 8-year-old kid who was turning all blue. I got him breathing again, and his dad started jumping down for joy. Unfortunately, I was not always so successful.”

Now, Sample plans to fish, travel, sleep and explore the country in his motor home, visiting small towns in particular.

“I particularly like hardware stores,” Sample said. “I could spend my whole time there.”

Sample looks back and sees that he has been a lucky man.

“I’ve had an amazing career in a great community,” he said.

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