URBANA — When the bell goes off, it's almost like Fire Chief Mike Dilley is no longer an administrator.
He has been head of the fire department for six years — a post he will be leaving in July — but he'll tell you that he is, first and foremost, a firefighter.
"I go to every fire, but it's because I want to be there, not because I have to," Dilley said.
Now that he plans to retire after 30 years, he said the department has changed since he joined, but it's the core of the job — putting out fires — that has kept him on for so long.
"I love being in the fire environment," Dilley said. "If that was all there was to the job, I'd probably stay on forever."
But "the time's just come" for him to retire, he said. He'll be leaving a department which has somewhat of an uncertain financial future as property tax revenues for the city are a big question. Dilley said that is one of the biggest challenges he expects the next chief will face.
Mayor Laurel Prussing will be responsible to decide who will be next to fill that position and how that person is selected. She could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The fire department's main station, which is attached to the City Building at 400 S. Vine St., has been too small for quite a while, Dilley said, but limited funds will narrow the department's opportunities for expansion. Equipment needs are always a concern — in the past few years, the department has already foregone updating some of its equipment as it has been squeezed by a tight budget.
The way firefighters do their jobs has changed since he took a position with the department in 1983, Dilley said. Urbana firefighters spend a lot of time on fire prevention and education.
Every Saturday from April to November, for example, firefighters go door to door as part of their Home Fire Life Safety program. They check smoke detectors and offer free detectors or batteries for those that need them.
During those checks, they also spend some time offering basic fire safety tips, Dilley said. He said there have been two fire-related fatalities in the city of Urbana since the mid-1990s, and he credits that program with being one of the biggest life savers.
Those fatalities are always tough to deal with, he said.
"Loss of life in a fire is a very difficult situation," Dilley said. "Especially when children are involved."
The nature of fires is changing, too. Highly flammable polyurethane furniture has become more common, and even environmentally friendly buildings have made some fire situations more dangerous. "Green" construction often involves tight spaces where flash-overs are likely to occur.
Still, Dilley said that it is those events that have kept him going for 30 years. Fire chiefs in bigger cities do not necessarily get a chance to go into the field. He said the size of Urbana's department allows him to do that.
"Old-time fire chiefs, that's what they did," Dilley said.
The Dilley name has been a fixture at the Urbana Fire Department since 1968. Craig Dilley, the chief's son, has now had a father and a grandfather work as firefighters, and he says he is happy to take the torch for the family name.
Craig Dilley is in his third year as a firefighter, and it was growing up around the firehouse that got him interested in the profession. His boss has always been nearby.
"The first time I went inside a house to put a fire out with a hose, he was right there with me," Craig Dilley said.
He said his father has a reputation among the other firefighters as a "fair leader."
"You always hear about the bosses that never forget where they came from, and he was definitely one of them," Craig Dilley said.