WINSLOW — Town residents, young families, Girl Scouts and Sen. Scott Cyrway all stopped by the Winslow Fire Station on a sunny Saturday morning to view the department’s trucks and rescue vehicles, chat with the firefighters and meet the new chief in town, Ronnie Rodriguez.

The department was holding an open house two weeks into Rodriguez’s tenure.

According to Town Manager Mike Heavener, it has been at least 13 years since Winslow has had its own fire chief. For the past decade, Waterville and Winslow shared one chief, David LaFountain, who worked four hours a day in Winslow. He retired this summer. Because the number of calls the town’s department gets has increased and the types of situations that it responds to have expanded, the community thought it needed someone present full time. Winslow’s Town Council unanimously voted to separate the departments’ leadership in June.

“I don’t want to disparage former administrations in any way, but it’s a move that I see needed to happen,” Rodriguez said. “Think about it: Your boss comes in at eight, leaves at noon — and things happen all the time.”

He said hiring someone to be present around the clock also will give the department more direction and help improve training. One of the first things Rodriguez hopes to accomplish is securing federal grants to assist in financing a new tanker truck. The department now uses one from 1997.

“I don’t know if I want to divulge my hand just yet,” Rodriguez said, referring to more long-term plans for the Winslow station, “but I do have some goals.”

Rodriguez hails from Toms Brook, Virginia, and worked for Fairfax County Fire & Rescue for over 25 years. In his former role, he supervised more than 60 employees at five stations and oversaw an area of about 36 square miles. When he found out about the opening for a new chief in Winslow, he thought it was a perfect opportunity. Rodriguez and his wife, Sarah Joliat, had wanted to move to Maine to be closer to Joliat’s parents, who moved to Holden in 2004.

“It’s a lifelong dream of mine to be the fire chief of a nice, small town,” he noted. “I’m just excited to be here.”

Although Rodriguez worked near the nation’s capital, he is no stranger to small-town living, having grown up in a town without a traffic light. He credits his mother-in-law, Melody Joliat, with sharing an adage about the Pine Tree State that he has found to be overwhelmingly true already: “Maine is not a state; Maine is a neighborhood.” That attitude guides his work in Winslow.

“This is a great area. The people have been great,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I’ve had nothing but a warm welcome.”

Rodriguez is living with his in-laws temporarily, while Joliat stays in Virginia to enable their youngest son to finish his last year in high school. The couple agrees that the long-distance sacrifice is worth it, especially considering that a passion for firefighting runs in the family. Joliat was a lieutenant in Fairfax for over 20 years, and their son, Kristian Joliat, is Rodriguez’s aide.

“It’s a good job for us to be in, and if you call us, we will come,” Kristian Joliat said.

Alexis Palmer, 5, of Winslow, exits a practice trailer Saturday at the Winslow Fire Station during an exercise that teaches children how to exit smoke-filled structures safely. Other demonstrations and exercises were available for children to experience during the Fire Department’s open house. Photo by Nikolas Hample

The Winslow Fire Department employs six full-time staffers (in addition to Rodriguez) and 21 volunteers. The hiring of Rodriguez adds around $30,000 in expenses for the town. Previously, Winslow contributed 40 percent of the shared Winslow-Waterville chief’s salary, around $43,500. Rodriguez will receive an annual salary of $72,000.

For many who attended Saturday’s open house, getting face-to-face time with the new chief was a positive experience.

“I love it,” said local Girl Scouts troop leader Jessica Prentiss. “I think it’s great.”

Rodriguez enjoyed his unofficial welcoming and the chance to meet the Winslow community as well.

“Welcome to Maine, the way life should be!” one resident said in passing.

With a nod, Rodriguez responded, “That’s exactly right.”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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