Will Watts didn’t have an epiphany where he realized he wanted to join public service. But he does remember the feeling he had as a high-school student when he helped rescue a drowning man in New Smyrna beach.
“Looking back, I remember the feeling I got when that went down,” Watts said. “Now I am where I am, and I love that part of the job where you can make a difference and see the look in someone’s eye. They don’t even have to say anything. They just look at you and know you and your team made a difference.”
After nearly 18 years of making a difference in Maitland, Watts has been appointed as the new Fire Chief for the city’s Fire Rescue department.
Like many figures in fire rescue, Watts, 41, comes from a public service family. His father was a retired deputy sheriff with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. After deciding that law enforcement wasn’t for him, Watts attended an EMT orientation at Seminole State College.
He started working an ambulance job in Orange County for three years while in firefighting and paramedic school at Seminole State. He finally was accepted as a firefighter/EMT with the city of Maitland in 2001.
“I just didn’t like (law enforcement’s) side of public safety and community help,” he said. “What got me into this job is that I’m a helper. I’m a nurturer, I want to do good for the community and make a difference out there. … That’s where I wanted to go.”
Watts describes those first few years as having his eyes opened . For all the training and schooling he went through, nothing could really prepare him for the intensity of actually being on the job. His first call was to investigate an electrocution death.
Luckily, he had a strong mentor to lead him in the right direction. Then-lieutenant Kim Neisler took Watts under her wing and advised him to help out in the department as often as he could. Watts decided he always would be ready for a new position to open and continued to climb the ranks until he found himself as deputy fire chief in 2013. He was appointed to succeed Neisler last December.
“When I got put in the deputy chief position, I knew this was the office I wanted to sit in,” Watts said. “Like I have done my entire career — I jumped in head first.”
It’s clear Maitland is trying to embrace the future, and Watts wants his department to be ready for when it does.
The city’s population is slowly becoming denser with the addition of apartments and other multi-family living spaces, which poses new challenges for the department: How to protect a changing city?
“We have to evaluate every response, the traffic patterns, the number of calls each one of these facilities is putting on our services,” Watts said. “If we have someone stuck on a balcony or a window washer stuck on the side of a commercial building, how do we rescue that person? That’s something the fire department 10 or 15 years ago didn’t have to be concerned with.”
It ultimately comes to possibly needing additional staff and new tactics, Watts said. The department currently is evaluating if new training is needed. Watts also wants to renew its accreditations standards and lower the city’s insurance service rating, which currently stands at a two.
Like Neisler, Watts wants to continue to emphasize mental health and care for his firefighters.
“You see people at their absolute worst (on the job),” Watts said. “I’ll often times get asked, ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?’ And I say, ‘You don’t even want to know.’ If there’s something worse out there, I don’t even want to know about it. … Nothing can prepare you for that.”
2001 - Joins Maitland Fire-Rescue as a firefighter/EMT, trains to paramedic within a year
2003 - Promoted to engineer/paramedic
2007 - Promoted to lieutenant/paramedic
2012 - Promoted to battalion chief
2013 - Promoted to deputy fire chief