Ben Steketee remembers the day 15 years ago when Mayor Delores Dalke asked him to become Hillsboro fire chief like it was yesterday.
“She said ‘Well, we’re going to have to replace the fire chief,’ cause Wayne was about to retire, ‘and I think maybe you should be the fire chief,’” Steketee said. “I literally laughed out loud, and I said ‘Yeah, right, that’s a good one, mayor,’ and she said ‘No, I’m serious.’”
Steketee named off a list of other firefighters he felt deserved it more, but Dalke was determined to make him chief.
Before giving Dalke an answer, he discussed it with his wife Mary.
“My wife and I decided that it would be a good thing,” Steketee said. “It’s been great ever since.”
Just three years after he became fire chief, Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church burned down on March 7, 2004.
“There were some things I learned during the church fire that I’ve taken to this day, and that is the importance of communication, importance of having incident command, and the importance of training,” Steketee said. “The most important thing is that all my fire fighters go home at the end of the day uninjured. Insurance companies can pay for most of the other stuff but they can’t replace people.”
After the church fire, Steketee decided to up the training schedule for volunteer firefighters, creating a more vigorous, educational system.
“Before that, we’d run the trucks and learn how to make them work, but no one talked to us a lot about what you do to make it safe,” Steketee said.
“They say put the wet stuff on the red stuff and that puts the fire out and that’s an oversimplified version,” Steketee said. “The real thing is put the wet stuff on the red stuff and do it safely and make sure you’re not getting hurt or hurting anyone else.”
Hillsboro firefighters now make an annual trip to Topeka for SCAFFA School, which stands for State Capitol Area Firefighters Association, which Steketee said is a great training opportunity.
“The beauty of SCAFFA School is that there are usually 5 or 6 that go, and one will take one class, and this guy will take that class,” Steketee said, “and then they bring that back and they go ‘Hey, guys, during our training session, this is what I learned.’”
Another change in the past 15 years that has helped, Steketee said, was assigning Rusty Moss as training officer for the department.
“We trained before, and the training was pretty good, but I was doing it all myself,” Steketee said. “Now I have Rusty and we bounce things off each other and we also got Cory Unruh, who was a firefighter in McPherson.”
The fleet of fire trucks also has improved since Steketee became chief.
“The only trucks that remain from when I started as fire chief are the ladder truck and brush four,” Steketee said. “We now have a new tanker truck, a new rescue truck, a new brush truck, and a new-to-us bumper truck.”
At the end of the day, Steketee said he wanted to give credit for his 15 years as fire chief where it’s due.
“Hillsboro has been great for me, it really has. God has blessed me,” Steketee said. “Someone once asked Steven Spielberg what he attributed his success to and he said ‘Well, I surrounded myself with good people,’ and that’s what I’ve done. We have really high quality people here on the fire department.”