MAHOMET — John Koller grew up wanting to be a firefighter.
Lots of youngsters do. Koller, however, followed through.
The Cornbelt Fire Protection District chief had two major influences in that area.
“My grandfather was a firefighter. I was around him a lot when I was a kid,” Koller said. “I lived down the street from a firefighter. I had some good people to talk to about the job.”
Their influence rubbed off. Koller does more than a pretty good job. He is among the best, according to the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, which has named Koller its Fire Chief of the Year.
Koller’s influence has had a dramatic impact on the department and the community, said Zakk Tompkins, an engineer and EMT-B with the department who was among the group that nominated Koller for the award.
“He goes well above and beyond anything that’s asked or expected of him,” Tompkins said. “Cornbelt puts a lot of really high expectations on the service that we provide to people.”
Tompkins said Koller sets an example “of showing us what meeting that needs to look like.”
He said the chief is at the firehouse “pretty much seven days a week, not just for the big calls.”
Tompkins said Koller is not afraid to get dirty. He helps to wash the trucks and clean bays.
“He’s huge on customer service and leading by example,” he said.
Another nominator, Joshua Jessup, a Cornbelt volunteer who worked with Koller at the Champaign Fire Department, called him “a transparent, vulnerable and clear communicator.”
“He clearly demonstrates and communicates expectations of excellence, and ... he provides a superb example of those expectations in the way he conducts himself in and out of the firehouse,” Jessup wrote in his nominating letter.
Jessup said Koller has been a board member of the Mahomet Area Youth Club, was a trustee for Cornbelt and is active in the community.
Mahomet-Seymour district Superintendent Lindsey Hall, who has worked closely with Koller to prepare, plan and activate emergency-response drills, said in her 30 years in public education, Koller is the best of the fire and police personnel with whom she has worked and called him “a kind and dedicated man, husband and father.”
A 10-year veteran of both the Normal and Champaign fire departments, Koller, 46, is starting his sixth year as Cornbelt fire chief, a full-time position.
He oversees a department that encompasses 96 square miles with about 18,000 residents. Last year, the department, which also includes an ambulance service, responded to a little more than 1,300 emergency calls.
The department comprises a total of 55 employees, with six being full-time, five of whom are EMTs. In a unique arrangement, the district has volunteer engineers who man the station on 12-hour shifts round the clock.
“Even though they’re volunteers, they sleep there,” Koller said.
Cornbelt is the only department in Champaign County that offers a fire-based ambulance service. It partners with Carle Hospital’s Arrow Ambulance, with two full-time ambulance personnel on duty all the time.
Since Koller came on board, the district has built a new station on Franklin Street and recently opened another station on Tin Cup Road in the northeast part of the district.
A live-burn facility — “one of a handful in the state” — has been created. The district has also implemented additional training under Koller’s watch.
Tompkins said while Koller is contracted to be on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he is frequently at work well into the night.
“He routinely takes time out of his day to mentor everyone from probationary firefighters to fellow chiefs from surrounding departments,” Tompkins said. “He promotes an emphasis on customer service, including helping elderly people bring in groceries to quietly organizing local events to support families in need.”
Koller said his family’s commitment is also vital. His wife, Debbie, and three sons “sacrifice family time and 100 support me.”
He said all of the improvements with the department have been done with no increase to taxpayers.
“Our board that oversees our department financially is super responsible and does just a great job with that,” he said.
He also credited the Cornbelt staff.
“I’ve never been around a more dedicated group of people in my life,” he said. “It’s nice to receive the award. It’s the boots-on-the-ground people that make it work. That’s Leadership 101. You surround yourself with great people, and good things happen.”