County honors retiring public safety chief Will May


Published: Friday, January 22, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.

There's no truth to the tale that Will May was there with a fire truck -- just in case things got out of hand -- when Greek mythical figure Prometheus first stole fire from the gods and delivered it to the mortals.

But May has been fighting fires for a long time. Now, one of the most distinguished careers in local firefighting and public safety is drawing to an end after more than three decades with the city of Gainesville and then Alachua County.

May, 65, retires as Alachua County's public safety director at the end of this month, closing a career that began in 1975 when, after a short stint as a commercial fisherman out of Cedar Key, a former U.S. Navy warrant officer took a job as a Gainesville firefighter.

Back then, May said, firefighters used to ride to calls while standing on the tailboard of the truck.

When there was a chemical spill on South Main Street in the late 1970s, before the days of hazmat suits, May said he and the other firefighters on scene used tape to seal shut their suits and protect themselves.

That incident, May said, led to the formation of the first hazardous materials response team in North Central Florida.

There have been plenty of other changes over the years, and May has overseen many of them. After rising through the ranks of the Gainesville Fire Department to the position of deputy chief, he resigned from the city in July 1990 to become the county's fire chief and director of emergency services. In April 2008, that job title was changed to director of public safety.

Friday afternoon at the Gainesville Woman's Club, a large group of well wishers -- county commissioners and administrators, public safety personnel, and representatives from the Sheriff's Office, county municipalities and other agencies -- gathered to honor May.

Alachua County Fire Chief Ed Bailey said May led the department's growth from station construction to additional responsibilities such as emergency medical response to vehicle crashes and other incidents. He also handled large-scale deployments for the wildfires of 1998, 2000 and 2002 and the hurricanes of 2004, Bailey said.

Bailey noted that May is recognized internationally as an expert in the area of wildland/urban interface, which focuses on fighting wildfires that reach homes and developed areas, posing a challenge for firefighters and a great risk to human lives. Bailey also pointed to the strong reputation Alachua County Emergency Management has built under May.

One well-known former employee who cut his teeth in that department is Craig Fugate, who is now the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Current Emergency Management Director Dave Donnelly said May put the right people in the right jobs and then gave them the resources and the room to work.

"He's been a supporter and a leader at the same time," Donnelly said.

During May's tenure, the department built four new stations, rebuilt others and expanded coverage into Waldo, Hawthorne and Archer.

"He and his staff have made Alachua County Fire Rescue into a progressive department for the 21st century," said Robert Sullivan, lead group representative with International Association of Firefighters Local No. 3852. "We have state-of-the art equipment. All of our trucks are brand new."

County Commissioner Paula DeLaney described May as the ultimate professional.

"He's been an outstanding leader," DeLaney said. "He's professional. He's got extensive expertise and, in my opinion, has been an excellent manager of his people."

A Gilchrist County native and Trenton High graduate, May graduated from the University of Florida in the mid-1960s before an eight-year active-duty stint in the Navy. He was working as a commercial fisherman and considering a return to the Navy when he found out Gainesville was hiring firefighters. It sounded like a good job, so he applied.

"I enjoyed helping people and, at that level, it was more day to day, look someone in the eye and know you helped them," May said. "As I rose through the ranks, it was less individual and more looking at the needs of the community at large."

Over the years, the job grew to cover emergency medical response and the county's E911 mapping system, which tracks the location of emergency calls.

Reflecting on his career, May recalled how preparation and good fortune came together in 1998 when wildfires near Waldo "burnt everything to toast right to the edge of (County Road) 1474" but did not take down any homes.

In 2000, wildfires burned on the western edge of Waldo for three weeks but, again, did not burn down any buildings.

May said he has contemplated retirement for the past few years and made up his mind in June 2009, when he took his granddaughter with him to Australia for an International Association of Fire Chiefs conference on wildfire mitigation.

"She mentioned it would be nice to stay here a little bit longer," May said. "I said, 'yeah it would be, but I have a budget meeting next week.' "

He said his first vacation planned so far is a trip to northern New Mexico in late September or early October.

Of course, someone with May's work ethic might never completely retire. Right after his retirement from the county, the International Association of Fire Chiefs plans to call on him to travel on their behalf for talks on wildfire threats.

On Tuesday, the County Commission is scheduled to vote on County Manager Randall Reid's recommendation to name Bailey the next public safety director.

Contact Christopher curry at 374-5008 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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