David LaFountain, chief of both the Waterville and Winslow fire departments, announced Friday he will retire June 30, after nearly 40 years in the fire service.

It will be a bittersweet moment for LaFountain, who has loved the profession but knows it’s time to leave.

At 61 — he will be 62 in May — he has been chief of both departments 10 years, was a firefighter and captain in Waterville 34 years and a part-time Winslow firefighter for five years before that.

“Ten years is a good benchmark,” he said of being chief. “I can’t burn the fuel like I used to. It just gets to the point where it’s time, and you see it when you get there. I think it’s time to make the change. It’s a young man’s game. I did what I could. I think both departments are better than when I found them, and that’s kind of what you shoot for.”

Standing at 6 feet, 7 inches tall, LaFountain has been a visible, calm and commanding presence in central Maine over many years — not only at fire and rescue scenes, but also at Waterville and Winslow council meetings and other events.

Waterville City Manager Michael Roy praised LaFountain’s work.

“As a career firefighter, Dave LaFountain established a reputation as someone totally dedicated to public service — whether it be fighting fires or providing rescue services to residents in Waterville and Winslow,” Roy said. “His 34-year career sets an example for all to follow, but unfortunately one that few can match. His loyalty and dedication will be missed and difficult to replace. It is with great regret that we watch him leave, but we are happy knowing that he will now have more quality time with his family.”

A 1976 graduate of Winslow High School, LaFountain did not grow up aspiring to be a firefighter, like many others whose family members were in the fire service.

Waterville and Winslow Fire Chief David LaFountain sits in his office Friday in the Waterville fire station. LaFountain has announced he is retiring in June. Staff photo by David Leaming

He attended University of Southern Maine after high school and studied industrial arts education and later technology, but left to study criminal justice at University of Maine at Augusta. He thought he wanted to be a police officer and landed a job as a part-time patrolman in Winslow, but he quickly started to question his decision.

“I tried that and found out it wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for police officers. While I was working as a patrolman with Winslow, the Fire Department was having a training and invited me to join. That’s when I realized that this is more of what I was looking for. I went from the PD to a part-time firefighter in Winslow and was there five years when a job opened up in Waterville. Three of us were hired in 1984.”

He eventually earned an associate degree in fire science from Southern Maine Community College, where he took courses while being employed full time. While working as a firefighter and chief, he never stopped enrolling in classes and taking training around the country in everything from nuclear science to weapons of mass destruction and advanced chemistry and biology.

“I think it is the best job in the world, and you can go where you want to,” he said. “I’ve met probably some of the best professionals in the country. This job has taken me to a lot of places to learn a lot of stuff.”

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro commended LaFountain for a life dedicated to public service and the people of Waterville.

“It is no small thing that Dave worked his way up through the ranks over his 34-year career to become the chief of a fire department with such a rich history like Waterville’s,” Isgro said. “Loyal to his mission, he showed leadership through changing and challenging times in the firefighting profession. He will be missed, but I’ll be very happy to know the chief is enjoying his well-deserved retirement.”

Likewise, Winslow Town Manager Michael Heavener said LaFountain has worked hard over the years to get the Winslow Fire Department equipment it needed to do jobs efficiently and safely. Recently, he worked to replace an aging rescue unit with a slightly used but much better piece of equipment.

“I will certainly miss David. He’s been great to work with,” Heavener said.

FIREFIGHTING THEN, NOW

LaFountain has seen a lot of changes in the fire service over nearly 40 years as a firefighter, captain and chief.

“It’s a totally different job now,” he said. “We don’t have half the fires we used to have, but the hazards are certainly still there.”

Waterville and Winslow Fire Chief David LaFountain stands in front of Waterville Central Station on Friday. LaFountain has announced he is retiring in June. Staff photo by David Leaming

A big concern for firefighters is being exposed to all sorts of chemicals during fires, according to LaFountain. There’s carbon monoxide and cyanide of one kind or another, depending on what’s burning, and there are many different gases one can be exposed to, he said. As a firefighter perspires and his or her pores open up, chemicals can get into the skin.

“The cancer rate in firefighters is a large percentage more than in the general population, so we’re trying to do best practices to protect firefighters from as much exposure as we can,” he said.

Staffing also is different. When LaFountain started as a firefighter in 1984, Waterville had 21 full-time firefighters. Now there are 15, and another 25 call firefighters. Winslow has 25 firefighters, only six of whom are full-time, according to LaFountain.

“Things being what they are, we do what we can with what we get,” he said.

Interest in firefighting has been decreasing nationally as well, according to LaFountain.

“When I was hired back in 1984, there were three positions open and over 200 candidates. Now it’s not unusual, and I think police are the same way, to have six to 10 candidates for one position,” he said. “Even part time nationally, we’re having problems recruiting, retention. We hit our part-time firefighters really hard. We expect a lot from them. We demand a lot of training for them so they know what to do and how to be safe.”

LaFountain said that whoever takes the helm after he leaves will be working with good people who work hard.

“They take the job very seriously. They’re dedicated, and this is the part-timers as well as the career guys,” he said. “We lean really hard on our part-time force, and I really appreciate the efforts that they make to step up to the plate.”

As much as firefighting can be rewarding, it also is tough, particularly when firefighters are faced with tragic situations.

“I think it’s just a continuing bombardment of, you never know what you’re going to see or smell or be exposed to,” LaFountain said. “You deal with people at the worst time in their lives or the end of their lives. There are calls that follow you, and we pay attention a lot more to post-traumatic stress. When there’s a bad call, we get counselors in to talk to you.”

Being chief in both Waterville and Winslow, as well as the local emergency management director for both communities, has been a lot of work. He is not certain that one person will continue in both roles after he retires.

“I think the towns have to make a decision if they want to continue with one chief for the two towns,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s the best way to go. I think that a full-time chief in each town who work together well is a benefit. I’d like to see the closeness of the departments continue, if they can do that.”

LaFountain counts among his mentors former Waterville Fire Chief Fred Brown, who hired him and became a great role model.

“It was a pleasure to work with him, and Mike Roy was really good to deal with,” LaFountain said. “Both councils, the City Council and Winslow Town Council, have been excellent to deal with.”

Brown’s son, Tony, a retired Waterville employee who worked 24 years as a firefighter and six as a police officer, worked under LaFountain when LaFountain was a fire captain and then chief.

Contacted about LaFountain’s plans to retire, Tony Brown said he played sports against LaFountain when they were in high school — LaFountain for Winslow and Brown for Waterville — and he remembers it was a challenge because of LaFountain’s height. They worked together well at Waterville Fire Department, where LaFountain was supportive and treated everybody well, according to Brown.

“He was a very dedicated fireman. He knew his job well, and basically, other than his family, being a firefighter was what he wanted to do and really enjoyed doing it. He was very good to work for. I’m surprised to hear he’s getting done, because I know he enjoyed it so much. He is quite a family man. I was always impressed with that. I always thought he was very close to his family.”

LaFountain credits that family for taking a lot in stride when he was away from home for long stretches.

Being a firefighter, which can be all-consuming, means he could not make it to a lot of his children’s events and other family gatherings.

“They put up with me being gone to trainings or classes, for instance, and then hurrying home for my daughter’s birthday.”

He and his wife, Lee Ann, have been married 38 years and have two daughters, Marie and Bethany, as well as four grandchildren, Gwenyth, Benjamin, Tyler and David. He said he looks forward to having leisure time with them after he retires, particularly at the family camp on China Lake, which they call “Camp David.”

“My wife and I are going to take some time. We’ve got four terrific grandchildren we love to spend time with. I will probably be working with tools and doing things, fixing things up around the house and camp.”

He paused when asked if he will miss the fire service, but it quickly became evident he was thinking beyond the question.

“I’m sure I will, but at age 61, when the alarm goes off at 2 in the morning and it’s 20 below with the wind blowing, you don’t handle it as well as when you’re young.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17