‘Slow down, enjoy every level of your career’: DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster to retire

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas: McMaster gave Nov. 27 retirement date after 26 full creditable service years with DeKalb Fire Department

DeKALB – DeKalb’s fire chief who has been with the department for more than 25 years and was appointed chief in early 2019 will retire later this year, city officials announced Wednesday.

According to a Wednesday City of DeKalb news release, DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster notified City Manager Bill Nicklas of his intent to retire Nov. 27, when he reaches the threshold of 26 full creditable service years with the DeKalb Fire Department.

McMaster, 51, said he will be 52 by his set retirement date. He said a combination of factors in his personal life, personal career and the needs of the City and the fire department contributed to his decision.

McMaster said the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the catalyst for his decision. However, he said, he considers himself fortunate to have the opportunity to lead the fire department during that critical time.

“That’s going to be one of the feathers going to stick in my cap,” McMaster said. “ … That is an experience I will treasure.”

McMaster started with the department as a probationary firefighter and paramedic on November 27, 1995, according to the release. He held the ranks of Lieutenant and Paramedic from 2004 to 2009, Captain from 2009 to 2012, Battalion Chief from 2012 to 2013, Assistant Fire Chief of Training from 2013 to 2017, Deputy Fire Chief from 2017 to 2018, and interim Fire Chief from Nov. 30, 2018 to Feb. 1, 2019 before his appointment as Fire Chief on Feb. 1, 2019.

“We are grateful for his many years of unselfish leadership and service,” Nicklas said in the news release.

McMaster said he believes “change is good,” even when it’s uncomfortable, and that it’s time to bring in more “fresh outlooks on every level to continue to drive the fire department forward.”

“Am I up for it still? Absolutely,” McMaster said. “But I just think now is a good time personally and professionally, I guess, to go in a different direction.”

McMaster served for years as a member of the MABAS Division 6 Hazardous Materials Team and as coordinator of the DeKalb Fire Department’s Public Education team during his career. He also received certificates through the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshall and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well. He also maintained his paramedic licensure.

In 2017, McMaster graduated from the Executive Fire Officer Program through the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

McMaster said he plans on remaining active in the community after retirement. He said he will be looking at other possibilities and opportunities for his next chapter in life.

“But right now, there’s no rush into it,” McMaster said. “Really, the focus of this was what my personal needs were and the needs of my family, but also what the DeKalb Fire Department needs.”

Words of wisdom

If McMaster had the opportunity to give words of wisdom to his younger self, he said he knows exactly what he’d say: Slow down and enjoy every level of your decades-long career.

“That seems like forever and you want to accomplish goals and at times you get so wrapped up in … wanting to get projects done,” McMaster said. “A lot of times, like in life, you don’t stop and appreciate where you’re at.”

Eventually, “your career will end” and “you don’t want it to be a blur,” McMaster said.

“You want to be able to cherish it,” McMaster said. “ … Because let me tell you, it felt like I was first walking in the door of the DeKalb Fire Department just yesterday.”

DeKalb Fire Department retirees said they believe McMaster is the city’s first Black fire chief. The city’s first fire administrator of color appears to be former Asst. Chief Esteban Quesada, who was hired in April 1989 and resigned in September 1989, according to a Sept. 17, 1989 issue of the Daily Chronicle.

“From day one, I have felt accepted in the community and I have felt accepted in the city and in the fire department,” McMaster said.

Timeline for a new chief

Nicklas said in the release a search for a permanent successor will begin “in the near future.”

Nicklas added Wednesday afternoon next steps are expected to include annual budget planning, creating a profile similar to the one created in the city’s police chief search as part of the job posting, and looking at internal and external candidates to consider for the position. He said he plans on proposing the creation of a search committee for the position.

Nicklas said McMaster has had “a distinguished career” and city and fire department officials “have thought highly of him.”

“When he looks back and considers his career with DeKalb Fire Department, he should be very proud,” Nicklas said.

McMaster said he and his wife Annalisa are now empty nesters and plan to still live in DeKalb. McMaster has two adult children, Jeff Jr., 27, and Tia, 25, both graduates of DeKalb District 428.

McMaster said it was “a pleasure to serve” the DeKalb community and he has always felt supported and continues to feel supported by past administrators and city officials. He said “it’s leaving the people that’s going to be the hardest about retiring.”

“This has definitely been a fairy tale life and a fairy tale career,” McMaster said. “And I’m blessed beyond what I deserve.”

• This story was updated 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, 2021 to include additional comment from DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster and DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas.

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.