AUGUSTA, Maine — John Dean has decided to retire after 14 years as Maine’s Fire Marshal. His last day will be on January 31.
“It’s that time,” said Dean, 63, who is originally from Old Town, but now lives in Winthrop. “I’ve been here in this job for a little over 14 years, but I’ve been in public safety for over 40 years. It’s been a long career and a good one, too.”
Dean was a member of the Old Town Fire Department from 1971-1989, eventually becoming the deputy chief. In 1989, he moved to Wells to become its fire chief until 1998 when he became the state fire chief.
Joe Thomas, former Portland fire chief, will take over as the state fire marshal until Public Safety Commissioner John Morris decides on a permanent replacement, said Dean.
He said he’s proud of the improvements made in fire safety while he was in charge.
“Over the years, our investigators have become much more professional. Better trained and had more certification,” said Dean in a telephone interview Sunday.
He added that better training, better codes and more public awareness have helped minimize fire deaths.
“Something as simple as smoke alarms, which weren’t even around when I started in 1971. Nobody is without a smoke alarm now,” he said.
Dean said he hopes to see residential sprinklers as the next fixture in every home.
“That’s the next step. More and more are being installed in Maine,” he said. “It’s like having the fire department on duty 24/7 in your house.
People worry about water damage, but you’ll have much, much more water damage in your house from fire hoses than a sprinkler system ever would.”
The fire prevention division inspects all plans for public buildings, he said, and he was happy to continue a tradition that preceded him.
“There’s one shining star and that is we haven’t had a fatality in any of these facilities that we inspect. Not since 1945,” Dean said. “We’ve had fires right in the beds of nursing homes, but nobody has died.
“I’m getting older and I have my 91-year-old mother living with me. You think about these things,” he said.
He said he’s proud to see fewer fire deaths in the past decade. In 2007, there were only 12 fire deaths. The number got lower in 2010, with only nine.
“I remind myself and I try to remind others, when we celebrate only nine fire deaths, that there are nine families who thought it wasn’t a good year for fire deaths,” said Dean.
Commissioner Morris praised Dean’s work as the state fire marshal.
“John Dean has spent his entire adult life making this state a safer place,” said Morris in a statement. “His leadership as fire marshal coincided with the two safest years in Maine history for fire deaths and his commitment to fire safety has been recognized at the national level.”
Maine saw a rise in fire deaths in 2011 with 23. The annual average number of fire deaths is 17.
“Fire prevention isn’t very sexy stuff, but it’s the things that didn’t happen that are the good things. That doesn’t make headlines too much, but the best service we can provide to society is to prevent something from happening,” he said.
He noted that the recent trial involving topless coffee shop arson in Vassalboro was an important victory for the department. A lot of resources went into that investigation, he said.
“Very time consuming,” said Dean. “People see us go to fires, but processing the scene often times is the easiest part. There’s a lot of work [in criminal cases], a lot of interviews. Sometimes we have 75 interviews on a case.”
His work as the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals from 1996-1998 also kept him busy, he said.
“It took me all over the world,” said Dean. “I spoke before the [U.S.] Senate. I was on the Today Show. And I spoke at the University of Pisa [in Italy].
“I can remember standing in front of 250 people from 25 counties [at the Unviersity of Pisa], and before I started to speak, I looked out and wondered, how in the hell did I ever get here? I’m just a nobody from Old Town, Maine, and they’re listening to me.”
Dean said he will miss the excitement of the job and the people he worked with, he said.
“I always used to tell people when I’d hire them to be happy every day at work. I can guarantee you, you’d never be bored. Every day is different,” said Dean.
Dean said he isn’t sure what is next for him, but said he is open to new challenges.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error. John Dean was a member of the Old Town Fire Department from 1971-1989, not from 1971-1998.