Urbana Fire Chief Mark Keller is retiring from the Urbana Fire Division, ending an over two-decade career with the city.
Keller said it has been an honor to serve the community and he would never trade it for the world.
“It’s been a real good ride,” Keller said. “I’m proud of the fire department. I will always be proud of this fire department.”
Keller’s last day on the job will be June 21. An open house will be held that date in the municipal building, 205 S. Main St., to celebrate Keller’s retirement between 2 and 4 p.m. The event will be open to the public.
Originally from Springfield, Keller graduated from Kenton Ridge High School in 1987 and was a volunteer firefighter for Moorefield Township.
When Keller was growing up, his uncle, Wayne Boilon, was a volunteer firefighter for German Township.
“As a kid I used to go spend a lot of time there because he had a stepson that I’d spend the night with and we’d go hang out at the firehouse on a lot of weekends or even during the week during the summer,” Keller said. “That’s what kind of sparked my interest, that was back when I was really little and ever since then I wanted to become a firefighter.”
Keller joined the United States Air Force in 1988 spending time as a medical service specialist before leaving in 1992.
In November 1991, Keller took a test to apply for the Urbana Fire Division. He was hired on March 1, 1992.
“I was testing everywhere and that was my first real shot at getting a full-time job,” Keller recalled. “Actually it worked out pretty well because I got out of the military on Feb. 1 and a month later I’m here. In between there I worked at an ambulance service down in Middletown.”
Keller said former Urbana Fire Division members Craig Evans, Dave Torsell and Roger Fultz were big in helping him progress when he joined and throughout his career in the division.
In 1994, Keller was appointed as the union president, something he said he had never been involved with prior to this appointment. Keller would serve as the union president for 10 years.
When Evans retired from the fire division, Keller filled the vacant captain position in 2007.
“Being the union president kind of helped with the leadership side of things and I was actually put on the same shift that I was on almost forever at that point in time,” Keller said. “The difficulties were trying to transition from being buddy to kind of the leader of the shift. It all worked out I think pretty well I came in with some of my own ideas and tried to make things as good as possible.”
Following the retirement of Chief Jim McIntosh in May 2011, Keller was appointed as the fire chief in September 2011.
Keller said the transition to the chief position was more difficult than other promotions due to learning how the budget works. He credited former Urbana finance director Lee Williams for helping him work through this transitional process.
The biggest responsibility Keller said he inherited was taking the responsibility to make sure everyone goes home.
“You have that as a captain for six guys, but now in this position you’ve got that for the 22 to make sure that everybody is safe and doesn’t have any problems and everything’s going OK for them,” Keller said. “Knowing that that’s a possibility is kind of overwhelming at times.”
Things Keller said he is proud of from his tenure as chief include trying to improve the appearance of the division at a low cost, reducing overtime considerably and finding ways to maintain staffing levels particularly through the use of grants.
He also is proud of establishing a more detailed and defined training probationary period for when new people come to the department. This process includes a written and practical exam at the end of the probation period. Keller said since 2011 he has tested every probationary member.
Keller said the division operates differently than other fire departments in response to emergencies.
“I’m very proud in the fact that we operate aggressively, in a safe manner and I’m proud that during my tenure we did not lose or severely injure anyone. That’s not because of me, that’s because of everything that everybody’s done here to try to pull their weight and do their job.”
Keller said the thought of retirement started about a year ago. Speaking with retired fire personnel, Keller was told he would know when it was time to go.
“I found myself kind of losing some motivation and I don’t like that,” Keller said. “I’m kind of an impatient person so losing that is a big deal to me.”
Keller said it was difficult to inform captains that he was retiring.
During his time as chief, Keller said former captains Torsell, Jim Freeman, Phil Kellenberger and Jerry Kirk were helpful as well as current captains Jason Croker, Chad Countryman and Eric Beverly.
Keller said he appreciated the support Assistant Chief Jeff Asper has provided him over the past six and a half years. Keller said Asper has taken on projects to free him up for other things he needed to tend to.
Keller, Asper, Kirk and recently retired firefighter/paramedic Barry Wolf were all hired on the same date.
Asper said the department will miss the years of experience and leadership Keller has provided. He also said he will remember Keller’s mentorship when he started in the assistant chief position.
“His patience with me and his non-judgmental type attitude and giving me the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment,” Asper said. “He allows you to learn from your mistakes and to guide you and teach you and mentor you.”
While he never worked for him, Keller said former Chief Eugene Branstiter gave him support and inspiration when he was the EMA director. Keller said Branstiter always gave him words of wisdom and helped him put leadership in perspective.
Within the city’s finance department, Keller said director of finance Chris Boettcher, accounts receivable clerk Melissa Bair and accounts payable clerk Dianna Carroll have all been helpful in helping him maintain the budget.
Keller also thanked the city administration and city council for their confidence in him.
Urbana Mayor Bill Bean said he has known Keller since he started working in Urbana and it has been a pleasure to watch him advance within the fire division.
“His dedication to his profession, the community, his peers and the Urbana Fire Division will be missed,” Bean said. “We wish him the best as he begins another chapter in his life.”
Urbana Director of Administration Kerry Brugger said Keller has been a valued member of the city’s staff since starting in Urbana and as fire chief has been instrumental in fostering relationships throughout the county particularly within townships the division directly serves.
“His passion for his work is evidenced through his focus on preparedness, whether through maintaining and upgrading equipment, staff training or community engagement,” Brugger said. “Although we don’t like seeing Mark leave, we wish him the best as he takes on a new challenge and begins a new chapter within his chosen field.”
Keller thanked his family for their support throughout his career including his wife Christina, son Robert, daughters Melina and Chelsey Tornow, granddaughter Evelyn Tornow and son-in-law Nick Tornow.
Keller thanked his family for understanding when he would get called away to respond on calls or come home exhausted when they have plans.
Going into retirement, Keller said he will work at Navistar as a security analyst and in loss prevention dealing with security fire protection systems and assisting with EMS situations.
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331 Ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.