Champaign Firefighter of the Year maintaining family business


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Growing up with a volunteer firefighter and 911 dispatcher for parents, it's no surprise what line of work Josh Jessup chose.

"I was around the emergency services and the scanner and all of those things as a kid. It wasn't until I didn't do so well in college that my mom suggested I check out the fire service," says the 38-year-old son of Lee Jessup and Kathy Wallig.

Turns out mother knew best: Ten years after starting with the Champaign Fire Department, the Mahomet-born apparatus engineer (he drives the truck) will be honored today as the Champaign Firefighter of the year by the Exchange Club.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell caught up with the married father of three for 10 questions.

What's the biggest award you've received before this one?

I received the Heartsaver Award from the American Heart Association. My father collapsed at the scene of a trailer fire at Candlewood Estates on March 29, 2002. My dad and I had an argument on the way to the fire about who was going to be on the nozzle of the hose line, and he won the argument.

He went a few feet into the trailer, turned around, took his mask off and said, "I can't do this."

I was on the hose line behind him and caught him when he collapsed. I drug him away from the door, and we started CPR on him. It was a very emotional experience for me. My dad recovered and came back to active duty.

To this day, my dad always celebrates March 29 as another birthday.

What do you remember about your first fire in Champaign?

It was a small basement fire near Fifth and White. I was assigned to the squad, and my lieutenant was John Mills. We were assigned to do search and rescue. We never found anybody because, thankfully, everybody was out of the house. I was nervous just because it's a different type of operation than a volunteer fire department experiences.

What was the biggest fire you were involved with?

I was involved in the Green Street fire and the Metropolitan Building fire. The one that had the most lasting effect to me was a fire at 40 East Springfield Ave. in November 2013. That was where Jeff Lattz was hurt. I was driving him that night. He got hurt, and he really hasn't been back to work ever since. It was a big fire, and it was a strangely constructed old building.

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?

I was working for Carle in their research center, and I had a meeting scheduled to talk about a Medicare demonstration for doctors, nurses and providers at the clinic in Danville that day. I was at home getting ready to leave for that meeting. We had bought lunch for everybody, went to Danville, gave them lunch, turned around and went back home.

There is nothing in this world more important than what was happening, so we didn't have the meeting. I was a volunteer firefighter at the time, and I brought a television to my office. When the first building collapsed, I thought, "Oh my goodness. There are firefighters in there." I knew there were firefighters going up those stairwells to help those people, and I knew a lot of firefighters were going to be lost.

I think it made me more aware of the dangers of being a firefighter.

What did you do to earn this award?

I was given the Firefighter of the Year honors for creating the peer support team and behavioral health program at the fire department. Firefighters in Champaign and around the world have been asked to respond to a wide array of emergencies and are faced with trauma and tragedy everyday by being called into the lives of the public at their most trying and difficult moments. The stress of this job is unlike any other profession and is cumulative, and because of that, there has been a significant increase in depression, addiction, PTSD and firefighter suicides in recent years.

Studies recently indicated that one of the most important factors in the mental/behavioral health of first responders is Peer Support. The Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support Team was established about one year ago and members of Champaign Fire Department have, with the support of Champaign Firefighters Local 1260 and the city of Champaign, been trained in general behavioral health and several members have participated in a 24-hour training to become peer supporters.

There is now a vibrant and proactive behavioral health program and peer support team in Champaign that will undoubtedly have a positive impact on firefighters and their families for generations.

What was your reaction when you learned you'd won?

I'm still in disbelief. I don't feel like I have done anything deserving of this caliber of an award. My wife (Amy), my mom and my dad were my first three phone calls. They are extremely proud of me, and they will all be at the lunch with the Champaign Exchange Club.

Were you involved in any activities at Mahomet-Seymour High School?

I wrestled at 103 to 119 pounds. I wrestled behind some of the best wrestlers in the state of Illinois. They just beat me up all the time.

I was an offensive lineman and a defensive back for the football team. I played the saxophone and marched with a bass drum in the marching band. I was in the swing choir and in several musicals, including "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "The Princess and the Pea."

Whose picture was hanging on your wall as a kid?

Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears was one of my favorites. My dad and I watched Bears football. His intensity, professionalism and attitude really struck me. He had a very inspiring game. He knew the game, and he was smart.

When the Bears played a season at Memorial Stadium, I worked on a rapid response team for Arrow Ambulance in the stadium. There were response teams stationed at different portals of the stadium. We were the first ones to a patient's side, and we would take them to first aid or an ambulance.

The majority of the people that I dealt with were people who were intoxicated. But it was cool to be in the stadium when the Bears games were going on.

Any hobbies?

Right now it is my kids. They are ages 3 (Emmalyn), 5 (Liam) and 7 (Jack), so we play a lot. My 7-year-old is picking up baseball. My 5-year-old is interested in soccer but hasn't been able to play yet. And my 3-year-old follows them around. We spend the majority of our time outside when we can. And our church is very important to us.

How has faith helped you as a firefighter?

We go to the Mattis Avenue Free Methodist Church here in Champaign. My faith and background in the church has allowed me to be confident to do this job. I feel like people who choose to do this job — and other helping professions, like police officers and EMTs — are doing God's work.

It doesn't matter who calls you at what time of the day, where they are, what they look like, what they smell like, you are going to go help them. And you're going to give them your best and treat them like your own family.

That, to me, is God's law. Treat your neighbor as yourself.


Tim Mitchell is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mitchell6).