CHAMPAIGN — After devoting the last 24 years to teaching children and adults about fire safety and prevention, informing the public about fires and helping victims of tragic fires, Dena Schumacher is hanging up her fire cap.
Schumacher, 57, is retiring on Tuesday as life-safety educator and public information officer for the Champaign Fire Department.
She has been hired as executive director for the Hope Center at Vineyard Church in Urbana, a community outreach ministry that provides people with practical and spiritual resources and connects them to other services in the community to help them in their daily lives.
Schumacher grew up in Champaign and Philo, a daughter of a university professor.
When she was a first-grader at South Side School, her class made a field trip to a fire station. She remembered looking with awe as the firefighters slid down the fire pole, responding to an emergency.
"That visit had quite an impact on me," she said.
Schumacher studied early childhood education and journalism at the University of Illinois, and she taught and directed a preschool at married student housing at Orchard Downs for 10 years.
In 1989, the Champaign Fire Department hired Schumacher as an educator.
"I never thought I would end up at a fire department, but it was the way things were meant to be," she said.
One of her first fire-safety presentations was at South Side School, where her former first grade teacher still worked.
"I kept the thank-you notes from the teacher and her students, and I still have them to this day," she said.
Schumacher has been a local pioneer in the area of fire-prevention education.
"We used to just show the red shiny trucks and hoses, but I wanted to teach people ways to not have fires and ways to not get hurt," she said.
Over the next two-plus decades, Schumacher worked to establish a fire-safety program for preschoolers and senior citizens, at city schools, on the university campus and in the city's businesses.
Among the programs Schumacher is most proud of are Risk Watch and the Emergency Services Support Team.
Originally called Learn Not to Burn, Risk Watch is a comprehensive program that teaches people to prevent and avoid unintentional injuries.
Schumacher said Champaign was one of a handful of communities across North America that piloted this program, which is aimed at effectively teaching fire safety, poison avoidance, firearms safety, bike safety, drowning prevention, choking prevention, suffocation prevention and strangulation prevention.
"Dena gathered a team from Champaign and created this coalition," said Patty Metzler, Emergency Department Pediatric Coordinator at Carle Foundation Hospital. "Due to her passion for injury prevention we have the one of the lowest injury rates in the state. Her work has been very important behind the success of Risk Watch. Dena is such an incredible person."
Schumacher said she worked with representatives from the fire and police departments, schools, the park district, Carle, the American Red Cross and others for 16 years to provide a health and safety curriculum taught in part by firefighters, police officers, lifeguards, nurses and others experts in the classroom.
Schumacher credits the program for lowering the rate of unintentional injuries in Champaign to among the lowest in the state.
"The work we have done over the years has indeed saved lives," she said.
Schumacher started the Emergency Services Support Team about 21 years ago as a way to serve victims of fires and people involved in suicides and car wrecks.
"I would go out to a fire as a public information director, and the firefighters would put out the fire and leave," she said.
"I would be standing there with these people with their doors knocked down and windows broken out, and they asked what to do next."
She said between 20 to 25 volunteers are on call on a rotating basis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help fire victims.
"They are like a cup of cool water in the middle of the night to help people think through what they need to do and get needed resources to them," she said.
Schumacher said two fires had a great impact on her over her 24 years with the fire department.
One took place in the early 1990s, in a house on Neil Street across from Columbia School where a baby-sitter was caring for two kindergartners and two infants.
A little girl found a cigarette lighter and played with it while hiding in a closet, accidentally setting clothing on fire. The girl then shut the door.
As fire began to rage through the house, the baby-sitter worked to get the four children out of the house, trying to hold onto the kids, but the smoke was so thick that two little girls let go of the baby-sitter and died.
"It inspired me to do more to teach children about fire safety," she said.
Then, on one Easter Sunday morning in the late 1990s, firefighters were called to a home where a teenage girl was found abused and burned in an attic.
"The situation affected me deeply and brought tears to my eyes," she said. "It gave me great respect for what our police and firefighters do every day."
Schumacher said she will miss working with the firefighters.
"They are my brothers," she said. "We have experienced much fun, much delight and much humor in a fashion that only firefighters can have. We have created good memories together."