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Pioneer in Maine fire service retires

Steve Willis is the chairman of Southern Maine Community College's Fire Science Department.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A pioneer of Maine's fire service who wrote training safety techniques that became national standards is retiring.

Steve Willis is the chairman of Southern Maine Community College's Fire Science Department. He has spent 40 years coordinating the program to train hopeful and in-service firefighters to get their associate's degrees. The program is 54 years old.

"I’ve seen our program grow from just six full-time students when I was a student to 120 students," Willis said during a speech at his retirement celebration Thursday.

SMCC's website describes the program as focused "on developing skills in comprehensive approaches to fire protection that utilize cost-effective proactive, reactive and management methods. The ultimate goal is to help the student develop the appropriate skills and knowledge for professional fire protection."

On Thursday, firefighters from all over southern Maine and across the state gathered at SMCC to celebrate Willis' retirement.

Willis received a number of awards and honors Tuesday, including professor emeritus status at SMCC, as well as recognitions of his service by Maine's Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Maine Fire Service Institute, and an honorary gold badge from the Scarborough Fire Department.

Willis got his start in professional firefighting in Gorham, and went through SMCC's Fire Science program when it was just five years old. He went on to the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine before starting as a firefighter with the city of South Portland and then Portland.

He left firefighting in Portland to work for the Maine Fire Service Institute.

He also served on a national firefighter qualification committee and with the National Fire Academy.

Ultimately, Willis started SMCC's Fire Science "live-in" program, which allows students to live and work at 17 different fire departments across Maine while getting their degrees. It is now in its 34th year.

His research and techniques for safety during firefighter training have been published nationally in publications from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Fire Protection Association.

"When I see [my old coworkers] now, it's at a funeral. So I'm going to be delighted to see those who served the fire and EMS service as ripe, old, healthy firefighters," Willis said.

"Part of the reason why I have so much confidence [in the future of the fire service] is I've seen what strong leaders who won't give up have done," Willis said in his speech. "In every graduating class, including the one that will graduate in a few weeks, I see those leaders, and that's part of the reason why I loved just about every minute of being here for the last 40 years."

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