Retiring NC deputy fire chief recalls 16-year career

Michael Willets will return to work part-time on code compliance and wants to finally learn how to play golf

By Natalie Allison Janicello

BURLINGTON, N.C. — On the wall behind his desk rests Michael Willets’ father’s old red helmet, the punched 1970s tape — the last replacement of the labels that had melted off the helmet before — still bearing the Willets name.

After all, firefighting has always been a family affair for Willets, whose father, L.G. Willets, started at the Burlington Fire Department in 1957. When his brother, Danny Willets, became a firefighter in 1991, the pair became Burlington’s first father-son employees at the department.

When Willets was hired as deputy chief and fire marshal in 2001, he and his brother became the fire department’s first siblings to work together.

Family was central to his life then — his brother is the one who influenced him to get into firefighting in the first place — and it still is now, as shown by all the photos covering surfaces in Willets’ office.

“All this will be gone my next to last day,” Willets said.

This week, he retires from the Burlington Fire Department, where he oversaw the department’s fire prevention division after working in a similar role at the Greensboro Fire Department.

While he explains that his brother knew from a young age he wanted to be a firefighter, that wasn’t the case for Willets.

Danny urged him to apply with him to the Greensboro Fire Department since neither could apply to Burlington at the time because of the city’s nepotism policy.

As it turned out, in 1984 Willets got the job firefighting in Greensboro, but his brother didn’t. Danny later started at the Burlington Fire Department in 1991 after policies changed.

When Willets was moved to fire prevention in Greensboro after around 13 years in suppression, he wasn’t convinced that was his calling his life. He actually considered quitting the fire service industry altogether if it meant he would no longer be riding a truck every day to emergency calls.

But it’s a transition he decided to move forward with — and one he wouldn’t look back on with regret.

“During that time, it was preparing me for this,” Willets said.

He ran into Chief Jay Smith in fall 2000, shortly before Smith was promoted to chief of the Burlington Fire Department after working as the department’s deputy chief and fire marshal in the fire prevention division.

“I told him, ‘Hey, if you make chief, let me know if you need a replacement,’” Willets recalls.

Smith took him up on the suggestion.

The transition back to Burlington made sense for Willets, and it was one he made with the support of the Greensboro Fire Department, where he had worked more than 16 years.

“There were several things that had to happen, and those doors just kept opening,” Willets said. “And I felt this was where the Lord wanted me to be.”

By moving from captain in Greensboro to deputy chief in Burlington, Willets skipped over battalion chief, the usual step between the two positions.

Overseeing the fire prevention division for nearly 16 years means Willets has had a hand in making sure all of Burlington’s new real estate development during that time has been in compliance with the state fire code.

It’s a job he clearly has taken seriously, Smith says, and a division of the department Willets has helped to grow, justifying to the city council through “his meticulous record-keeping” why the city should provide additional positions.

Willets was fair and honest when working with people who were constructing new buildings, Smith said. Not only did he candidly let people know if they were exceeding requirements with unnecessary — albeit, welcome — fire safety measures suggested by contractors, he also made sure those developers were getting their money’s worth when paying someone to install alarm systems.

“Mike tried to look at that as consumer protection,” Smith said. “It’s above and beyond the safety factor.”

Having advanced certification in fire inspection and learning the state code inside and out, Willets knew his work was significant for a number of reasons: it would protect the lives of the people inside buildings in Burlington, it would conserve property, and it would make firefighters’ jobs safer in the event the building was on fire.

Based on his memory, Willets couldn’t recall any of those structures built in his 16 years here burning down, but he knocked on wood.

“I hope that’s what I’ve been able to bring to this city,” he said of the attention and energy he has invested in the fire prevention division.

As the city’s fire marshal, he has taken calls day and night to investigate causes and origins of fires, and from time to time has worked on investigations with the police.

On top of his other duties, Willets has served as public information officer, answering questions from news reporters and disseminating fire safety tips to the community.

“Mike, he’s such a hardworking guy, and he’s dedicated to the department,” Smith said.

In fact, in January, Willets will return to work part-time on code compliance.

Now that he’s retiring, with some of his extra free time, Willets plans to find a way to volunteer in the community.

He’ll have more of a chance to get outside and fish, and he wants to finally learn how to play golf.

“It’s been really fulfilling,” Willets said of his career in the fire service. “The only problem is time flies when you’re having fun, and it has definitely flown for me.”

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