NORTH AURORA – Growing up in North Aurora, Steve Miller used to peer in the windows of the village fire station every day while walking to school.
“I always wanted to be a firefighter,” Miller said. “No one in my family ever had been, but I wanted to be one. I got lucky enough to do it.”
On Wednesday, Miller, 62, retired after 42 years of service with the North Aurora Fire Department. He had been the department’s fire chief for 23 years.
Miller said it was the right time for him to retire.
“It’s just time for some fresh thinking,” he said. “I want to get out while I’m healthy and spend time with my family. My family has really had to suffer from the demands of a public job. The fire service calls are 24/7. I just want to start spending more time with my family out of public life.”
Ryan Lambert took over the reins Thursday after getting the nod from the North Aurora Fire Board of Trustees.
Before being promoted, Lambert was the department’s fire marshal.
“I’m excited, but also humbled,” Lambert said. “I have big shoes to fill.”
Lambert, who was elected to the North Aurora Village Board in April 2011, said he will have to step down from the board. Being fire chief will take his full attention because, he said, “I need to focus on the job.”
“It is bittersweet,” Lambert said. “I’m going to a job I always loved, but I was passionate about being on the Village Board.”
Miller said it is “getting tougher and tougher to run a fire department, more and more expensive with less and less tax dollars.”
“There’s a lot of challenges he’s facing, but I’m sure he can handle those,” Miller said. “He’s inheriting my senior staff, and my senior staff is just the best.”
Miller started with the fire department in 1972 as a paid-on-call firefighter.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 1976, captain in 1979 and assistant chief in 1987. He became the department’s part-time chief in 1991 and full-time chief in 1993.
Miller was the department’s first full-time employee.
As the area has grown over the years, the department is having to respond to more calls.
“When I started, we were running 100 and some runs a year,” Miller said. “We’re doing 2,000 a year now.”
He said he has seen many changes over the years, including in how fire departments are dispatched to emergencies. He said when he first arrived in 1972, there was no 911.
“We were wearing three-quarter boots and rubber coats,” Miller said. “To ride an ambulance, you needed a six-hour first aid class that was taught by the funeral home, and we were running in a Cadillac station wagon ambulance. There were also no smoke detectors. It has come a long way in the years I have been around.”
Miller noted that firefighters are better trained these days to handle all types of calls.
He said when he first started, “it was like, ‘You follow this guy, and he’ll show you everything you need to know.’ ”
“At that time, we were reacting to what just happened – smoke conditions changing or fire conditions changing,” Miller said. “Now, there’s fire science. You start recognize what is going to happen next. So you are recognizing your conditions and environment better instead of reacting to them.”
Firefighters also have better equipment these days, he said.
Sugar Grove Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Warner, who also works part-time at the North Aurora Fire Department, credited Miller for teaching him how to be a firefighter.
“He started my career,” Warner said. “I learned my basic fundamentals from there.”
Although Miller was the department’s fire chief for 23 years, he said he never sought out the position and added, “my happiest rank was captain, because I still got to fight fires.”
“I never came into this game wanting to be a fire chief, ever,” Miller said. “I just used to like riding the rigs.”
As a firefighter, Miller said he enjoyed the diversity of the job. He said every call was different.
“It’s not like any other job, where everything just happens the way it happens,” Miller said. “Everything is different.”
He credited the people around him for helping in his efforts to make the North Aurora fire department a strong department.
“I’ve been surrounded by great people, and I’ve had great residents to serve,” Miller said.