URBANA — Terrorism wasn't exactly in the lexicon of Americans when Bill Keller started his job in emergency management 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, it is now, and has come to define much of the work in public safety.
"The biggest changes have been the terrorist threats that started with Oklahoma City," said Keller as he reflected on his career.
The 63-year-old Bondville man retired Wednesday as director of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency. The agency was called the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency when he started 20 years ago. He's been director for 18 years.
Before that he worked for 11 years in security at Mercy Hospital, now known as Provena Covenant Medical Center, in Urbana.
Keller said the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City brought home to many Americans in a very tangible way that terrorism can happen anywhere. And it meant a shift in the way he and others in the business of managing public-safety resources did their jobs.
"I think they take it seriously," Keller said of Americans' view of terrorism. "Trying to get people prepared for not only terrorism but for all hazards — flooding, tornadoes — is always an uphill battle because there is still the mentality that 'it's not going to happen here.'"
Keller said the federal government has put more mandates on local government about emergency preparedness but hasn't necessarily followed through with the money to pay for them.
Even so, Keller said, Champaign County is fortunate to be "ranked as one of the best prepared counties in the state by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency."
Keller said there's always been a good cooperation among the many public-safety agencies within the county, and changes in technology have "enhanced the capability of all agencies to play better together."
"We have come a long way from walkie-talkies," he said, citing resources such as a hazardous-materials trailer and high-tech mobile communications center to respond to emergencies not only in Champaign County but also surrounding counties that don't have as many resources.
Another change he's seen in his career is that agencies train more for disasters.
"We're better prepared today than we were 10 years ago," he said.
In his 18 years as director in Champaign County, Keller said he's presided over five major weather events that qualified as federal disasters: three floods, one winter storm and a tornado. That meant federal money was available to help with cleanup.
"They were learning experiences for myself and the entire response community," he said.
The April 18, 1996, tornado that ripped through Urbana and Ogden, while devastating, could have been much worse.
"People did what they were supposed to do and that's why we didn't have a large loss of life," he said.
One woman was killed when the semitrailer she was a passenger in was flipped off of Interstate 74 during the storm.
"The way the communities pulled together to support one another was extremely impressive," he said.
Greg Abbott, deputy director of technology at METCAD, said he's known Keller about 25 years, both from working in the same building on East Main Street in Urbana and as a 28-year volunteer with Champaign County EMA.
"Bill's departure from emergency management in Champaign County leaves a significant void for the future. His work with state and federal officials has been invaluable. He knows how things need to be done at those other levels, he has helped us in establishing policies and procedures. He knows who to call," Abbott said.
Deputy Director John Dwyer, 36, of St. Joseph, will be filling in until a permanent replacement for Keller is selected. That may happen as early as December. The period to apply for the position ended Nov. 18.
Dwyer, who would like Keller's post, has been on the job since May. He previously worked for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District for almost seven years as an emergency-preparedness planner. Before that he served in the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Reserve. He's currently in the Illinois Air Guard.
An avid golfer, Keller said he plans to spend his retirement golfing with his son and grandson as well as continuing to work part-time with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Having served on the Illinois Terrorism Task Force from 1999 to 2006, Keller said he made a lot of contacts in the emergency-management arena.