Calm leadership guides area emergency services


Sun staff writer
July 17. 2005 6:01AM

For nearly 96 hours, May, director of Alachua County's emergency services, joined workers at the county Emergency Operations Center. They watched and waited to see where Dennis would go.

When the hurricane spared the area, May eased the anxiety by offering his usual dose of dry humor and tales of intrigue, said friend and county Emergency Management director David Donnelly.

After all, it wasn't the first time May, a 61-year-old Gilchrist County native, dealt with the wrath of Mother Nature. During last year's hurricane season, it was May whose calm leadership and direct, no-nonsense approach led emergency service workers when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne raged through North Central Florida.

"He's our go-to person in times of crises," Donnelly said. "He gets things done."

It's hard to imagine May can get anything done with a constant onslaught of ringing cell phones, beeping pagers and relentless e-mails he says he deals with every day. But May says it came with the territory when he joined Alachua County Fire Rescue in 1990. He began his career in emergency services as a firefighter with Gainesville Fire Rescue almost 30 years ago.

Even when the work day is done, May is typing away on his laptop at home with a briefcase by his side.

"This kind of work puts stress on personal relationships away from the job," said May, whose first marriage eventually ended in divorce.

"This is a career in service. My pager is always going off."

May's second wife, Barbara, is used to her husband getting pulled away to meetings or urgent pages. Barbara May said she knew early on the demands of his job would leave little time for May to devote to his family, much less squeeze in reading his favorite Tom Clancy books or take their dream vacation roaming North America in a motor home.

"His ethic is so strong that if there's something to be done, he does it," she said. "If his workload wasn't so heavy, he'd spend more time at home. But I'm pretty independent, so it works."

The couple met in 1989 while she was a dispatcher for the Gainesville Police Department. During an ice storm, Will May - who was still a firefighter with GFR - came into the communications center in the middle of the night, Barbara May recalled. She spent the next few days getting to know the man who would later become her husband.

"After that, the rest was history," she said.

Rise to leadership
Growing up on a farm near Trenton, Will May has seen Gainesville and Alachua County change as more people and development have altered the rural way of life he fondly remembers as a boy.

"The landscape has changed so much," he said. "You used to be able to look down the road and see horses miles away, but now there are pine trees because of land cultivation. There was no interstate, no Oaks Mall or Butler Plaza; just an old airport. The area has changed tremendously."

A 1962 graduate of Trenton High School, May attended the University of Florida for a short time and went on to receive an associate's degree from Lake City Community College. He spent eight years on active duty in the Navy and spent 20 years in the Naval Reserve, May said.

When May was working as a commercial fisherman at Cedar Key, a friend suggested they apply to GFR together, he said. Although he didn't have much of the formal education now required to become a firefighter, he was able to rise through the ranks from a rookie fireman to his present role as director of county emergency services.

As a firefighter with GFR, May said the adrenaline rush of responding to a burning building was unlike anything else he had ever experienced. When he was offered the director position at county fire rescue, May said it was the chance of a lifetime to help shape fire policy and improve emergency services for the public.

The job comes with pressure from politicians and fire rescue officials alike, making diligence and patience necessities in his line of work, May said.

"When you're a firefighter, you get that quick job satisfaction fighting a fire results come a little slower now."

As director of emergency services, May oversees the operations division of Alachua County Fire Rescue as the agency's chief. He also is the head of the administration, emergency management and special services divisions.

But May doesn't "micromanage," Donnelly said. He delegates and lets people do their job. May handles the myriad responsibilities entrusted to him with confidence and composure, says County Manager Randy Reid - May's boss. In times of crises, May is at his best, Reid said.

"He puts his personal needs behind the needs of the public," Reid said. "He has a strong work ethic."

May said one of the things he has stressed in the community is fire safety education.

"We try to get them while they are young," May said of the department's education efforts. "We're about more than just red lights and sirens running up and down the road."

Donnelly said another notable quality is May's genuine interest in getting to know those he works with.

"He places an importance on knowing his employees on and off the job," Donnelly said.

May said he hopes he has instilled in his employees the ideals of giving quality customer service to the public.

"You can always anticipate how everything will come out," May said. "I want our employees to look out for the reputation and integrity of the agency.

Being a public servant
May oversees a departmental budget of $19 million and answers for the lives of more than 190 firefighters and emergency medical service workers. But first and foremost, May said his job is all about being a public servant and meeting the community's safety needs.

Perhaps that's why there has never been a complaint against May and most of his annual evaluations have been graded with exceeding expectations or outstanding marks. In many of his evaluations, he received his highest marks for customer service - a goal he has always strived to meet.

May said he regrets he didn't place more of an emphasis on firefighter health programs and wishes he had an earlier impact on wild/urban interface planning. He added that such planning earlier on could have limited the loss of property from wildfires resulting from encroaching development. Although retirement is a few years away, don't expect May to slow down. He said he still wants to remain involved in emergency services by signing on with a federal consulting team.

"Honestly, I'm in no rush to get there (retirement)," May said. "I really love what I do and I like the people I work with. That excitement will never go away."

Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or