John Dean of Winthrop, who retired Jan. 31 as Maine state fire marshal, served 41 years in the field of fire protection and fire investigation.

The Old Town native spent two tours of duty as an Army medic in Vietnam and then 18 years, from 1971 to 1989, on Old Town Fire Department where he rose to the rank of deputy chief. From 1989 to 1998, Dean served as fire chief for the town of Wells. Then he was named state fire marshal, a position he has held for the last 14 years.

Dean has served as president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals and was a board member with the National Fire Protection Association. He has worked with many fire safety organizations.

Dean earned a degree in fire science from Eastern Maine Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine in vocational technology.

Dean says he has seen many changes within the fire service during the past 41 years.

“Firefighters are better trained now. We have better fire codes to make buildings safer when they’re built, much better than they were years ago. We now have sprinkler systems and alarms and you’re much more likely to get out of a burning building,” he says.

“There’s more use of smoke detectors today,” Dean continues. “That started in the early 1970s and now virtually everybody has them. They work. Almost every fire station in the state can tell you a story about a smoke alarm saving people.”

Fire investigators are much better trained today than in the past, Dean says. Investigators have to be certified as fire investigators and qualify as expert witnesses.

Prior to his retirement, Dean oversaw 12 fire investigators and 42 fire inspectors and clerical personnel.

Dean says he didn’t get involved personally with fire investigations unless a fire was considered “politically sensitive” or “if there are multiple fatalities, sometimes if there is a lot of media attention, I go to the scene so the investigators can do their work. I’ve worked at all levels, starting at the bottom.”

“We use arson dogs to look for accelerants (that may have been used to start a fire),” Dean says. “They will find it. We take one sample to the crime lab to tell us what it is.  We also use fingerprints and DNA evidence.”

He says investigations take time, months or even a year, to complete.

“It’s kind of like TV, only we can’t get it done in an hour,” Dean says. “It really takes a team  of everybody working together. Most of the time we can process the scene in a day or two. But it can become very, very difficult. We can interview 75 people sometimes. It may be a year from the time of a fire until we bring it to court.”

Dean says, “Every year, we investigate about 500 fires out of maybe a total of 5,000 fires in the state. Of the 500 fires investigated, about one-third of them are arson, one-third of them are accidental and in one-third of them, the cause is undetermined.”

Fire inspectors also review construction plans and “help developers and builders do it right,” says Dean. “All buildings where the public is going to go, such as hospitals, nursing homes, theaters and churches are subject to fire safety inspections.”

“We (in Maine) have some of the oldest housing stock in the country,” says Dean. “People have to take responsibility for fire safety. We’re not going to prevent them all.”

Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said of Dean’s four decades of public service, “John Dean has spent his entire public adult life making this state a safer place. 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.”

Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said in a release that Maine’s two safest years for fire deaths were 2010 with nine deaths and 2007 with 12 deaths. The average number of fire deaths in Maine annually is 17. Maine ended 2011 with 23 fire deaths.

Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a law legalizing the sale of fireworks after Gov. Paul LePage had removed some pyrotechnics from the bill. Dean opposed the bill, as he had previous fireworks bills that failed passage.

“We don’t support it,” Dean says. “People are going to get hurt and property is going to be damaged. Anybody in my position would have to oppose it. But we are good soldiers. We’re told what the boss wants and we do it.”

Reflecting on his career, Dean says he is satisfied.

“I have enjoyed it,” he says. “I made the decision (to retire) due to my age (63) and experience. I was very fortunate to become a beginning fireman in 1971. It’s the best job I ever had. We do very good work. Our work is valuable. Sometimes we can save a life.”

For retirement plans, Dean says he has a few — “I like to cook. I love spending time with my grandchildren. I have a pontoon boat on Lake Cobboseecontee.”

He and his wife, Carol, a writer of children’s books, have two grown children and two grandchildren. The couple lives in Winthrop.

Deputy Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas will become acting fire marshal until a permanent replacement for Dean is found.

John Hale is a contributing writer for Capital Weekly.