DeKALB – Newly appointed interim Fire Chief Jeff McMaster still remembers his first few weeks in the DeKalb Fire Department under the watchful, mentoring eye of retiring Chief Eric Hicks about 23 years later.
“My first structure fire here was with [Hicks] on South First Street, and I was nervous being the new guy – you want to prove yourself,” McMaster said, addressing Hicks on Thursday in the chief’s office at Fire Station No. 1, 700 Pine St.
The two sat underneath the DeKalb Fire Department symbol, which adorns the wall behind the chief’s desk.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” McMaster said, pointing at the symbol behind the desk, which he would call his own at 5 p.m., when Hicks officially hangs up his hat.
Hard work and a dedicated spirit
That’s what Hicks has spent decades instilling in his staff. McMaster said it’s because of Hicks “always being there,” that he feels ready to take on the role of interim chief.
Interim City Manager Raymond Munch announced Thursday that McMaster would take on the interim role.
Munch said he expects McMaster to operate in that capacity for at least three months, until a permanent city manager is hired to make a permanent decision.
“[McMaster] is a 23-year veteran of the department, and he has an excellent reputation both within the department and in the community,” Munch said Wednesday. “In conferring with Chief Hicks, quite substantially, [McMaster] rose to the top as somebody who has the capabilities of leading the department through that transition.”
That transition is at the forefront of both McMaster’s and Hicks’ minds, and they emphasized the move has been carefully crafted, so the public won’t even notice.
“My main priority for the next week is to really lay out the expectations,” McMaster said. “I think as new ideas and voices speak up, we’re going to meet those challenges and utilize everyone’s input, both from the community and from the firefighters.”
Hicks’ competitive spirit certainly kept McMaster on his toes at the start of his DeKalb career.
“To this day, I still remember the car in the Kishwaukee River,” McMaster said. “I was new, we were hoping the tow company could get it out, and [Hicks] told me to tie a particular knot [to stabilize the vehicle].”
Hicks quickly finished the recollection, “and you couldn’t tie it.”
“I just felt this sinking feeling that ‘I gotta tell him I don’t know how to tie it,’ and to this day, I still smile and laugh about that one,” McMaster said. “I knew I was in for it. [Hicks is] so competitive.”
McMaster has been with the department since 1995, after working full-time as a firefighter for the Blue Island department outside of Chicago. In DeKalb, he steadily worked his way up from firefighter to lieutenant, battalion chief, assistant fire chief in 2012, and in January 2017, he became deputy fire chief of operations, after former Deputy Chief Greg Hoyle retired.
Hicks knows a thing or two about rising through the ranks, and McMaster said losing that significant presence will be hard.
“I’ve always had [Hicks] as a mentor; he was always heavily involved in union functions and community service, and I would try to be at all of those,” McMaster said, fondly reminiscing. “When you’ve always had a beacon to look at, now that beacon is gone – I’m going to try to do this without getting sentimental – but it’s difficult.”
‘It’s all about Jeff now’
Hicks deflected the praise, saying, “It’s all about Jeff now,” but he won’t be far from reach.
“Just don’t set an alarm tomorrow,” McMaster quipped to Hicks.
McMaster said he would like to be considered for the official fire chief position once a decision is ready to be finalized, and will put his name in the running.
“It’s exciting because now you get to spread your wings, try new philosophies and move forward,” McMaster said.
With the potential cut of the deputy chief of operations position, part of McMaster’s job as interim chief will be figuring out how to balance those responsibilities with the operational requirements still needed even without the position. Hicks said budget cuts will make this transition a little different.
“Normally, when you promote a chief from within, everybody else moves up, but with budget reductions, you are not having that happen,” Hicks said.
McMaster said he’s just happy to have the support of his wife, Annalisa; two children, Jeffrey McMaster, 24, of New York City and Tia McMaster, 22, of DeKalb; and the community to help fill the big shoes Hicks leaves behind.
“I’ve gotten so much support from people saying, ‘You know what? We believe in what you’re bringing to the table, we think you’re gonna carry us on,’ ” McMaster said. “When you have that behind you, it’s a little easier to move forward.”