Joe Holomy

Joe Holomy will retire after 14 years as Effingham’s Fire Chief.

News Report Staff

Joe Holomy admits he was not a popular guy soon after he started as Effingham Fire Chief in 2004.

“I was directed to start a fire inspection program when I was hired by the city. I prepared a schedule and moved forward. We had a news media blitz and met with people to get them prepared for it. Early on, I made enemies. There were a lot of negative comments from the start. For a while back then, I walked around town with a target on my back,” recalled Holomy, who announced his retirement two weeks ago after 42 years as a firefighter in Illinois.

Undaunted, Holomy had Effingham Fire Department conduct inspections of factories and commercial buildings, which led to a discovery that those inspections were needed.

“At the time, we found sprinkler systems where the threads were not compatible with our fire department hoses. We could have had a horrific event if we had not discovered that when we did,” Holomy said.

That helped show the new chief was headed in the right direction. More improvements were coming, including a training program to help firefighters achieve state certification. Holomy worked to replace firefighter gear that was ineffective for different reasons, including improper storage in private vehicles. Firefighters were assigned to stations on 24-hour shifts and EPD officers gained more responsibilities.

Former Effingham Mayor Bob Utz said Holomy showed he was willing to make changes that city government sought 14 years ago for the fire department.

“We wanted a guy who was fairly aggressive to do some of the things we wanted done. He had the bells and whistles. He might have been a little aggressive at first, but I never really had any problems with Joe. He was smart enough to include people in the loop,” Utz said.

Holomy came to Effingham with more than 25 years of experience in firefighting. He started at the age of 18 as a volunteer fireman with the Mokena Fire Protection District. Mokena then was a small community not far from the junction of I-80 and I-57 in northern Illinois.

Holomy was inspired to become a firefighter by a popular television show from 40 years ago with firefighter paramedics working all kinds of emergencies. It was not a reality show, but it definitely was very realistic drama at the time.

“It was a program called ‘Emergency.’ At the time that show first came on, there were only 11 paramedics working in California. I loved watching Randolph Mantooth playing one of the paramedics, Johnny Gage. Not long ago, I met Mantooth when he was in Peoria. I got his autograph. That was quite a moment for me. It took me back to how I started in this profession,” Holomy said.

Holomy attended Moraine Valley Community College of Palos Hills to gain an Emergency Medical Technician license and then started heading out on emergency medical calls for Mokena. He would later advance to paramedic status.

“Back then, it took six months of training. It took two years for my son when he became a paramedic. A lot of things have changed over the years. We used to carry those big defibrillators. And we only carried a fraction of the drugs that paramedics use now,” Holomy said.

During his early career, Holomy was working part-time as an emergency responder for communities southwest of Chicago. He also worked at Harris Trust & Savings Bank in downtown Chicago. He was working on deals involving stocks, bonds and treasury notes that totaled millions of dollars. It was exciting work, but stressful.

“Most of us were in our twenties. One broker died at his desk. I remember one Friday night we were all going home on the train and talking about life. One gal working with us said she was going to see the doctor. She was just 28, and on Monday morning, we heard she was on the table for a triple bypass,” Holomy said.

He decided to switch to a profession that saved people from heart attacks or fires instead of one that landed him in the emergency room. Best of all, that job was how he met Mary, his future wife. They have been married for more than 25 years.

“My wife does not know me not being a fireman. My personal life revolves around this life,” Holomy said.

In 1994, Holomy was promoted to deputy fire chief at Mokena, which was transforming into a busy city. Later, he became administrative fire chief at Darien-Woodridge Fire Department. He then became fire chief at Beloit, Wisconsin, and three years later, he was contacted about the opening for the Fire Chief position in Effingham with the retirement of Nic Althoff.

With his long experience in many positions for firefighting and emergency medical services, Holomy knows that a sharing of responsibilities produces success. Training has helped on all levels.

“At the end of the day, all of our personnel have the minimum requirements on certification and most have much more. Our officers are highly trained and empowered to do a lot of things and make decisions,” Holomy said. “The officers here do it their way, not my way. I just took the people here, tapped their talents and gave them direction and cut them loose.”

That was illustrated best when firefighters worked on the recommendations for the latest purchase of a new fire department vehicle.

“I discussed it with our apparatus committee and they took it from there. They worked on the design and the best recommendation on the purchase last year on the 576 engine. They did and that shows the buy-in on this department,” Holomy said.

EFP has also been training the public on fire safety through its smoke and carbon dioxide programs, as well as the annual Open House each October. He praised EFD public education officer Tasha Hoffman for her accomplishments in that area, as well as past EFD public education officer Dick Kenter.

“We’re showing the public what we are doing more than ever before” Holomy said.

Hoffman also personifies one of the changes made in the department under Holomy’s guidance. She was the first female firefighter in the history of the department. Her hiring raised some eyebrows at first, but Holomy believes she has earned respect, both as an educator and firefighter.

“They had never had a female in this department before. She turned a lot of heads when she was driving the tower ladder truck. But she is a strong woman in a small package. She quickly proved herself to the guys here,” Holomy said.

Utz believes he and city council members made the right decision with Holomy. The city also benefits from an ISO 2 rating, an amazing accomplishment for the fire department in a small city like Effingham.

“I think Joe had been a credit to the fire department,” Utz said.

Facing retirement in less than a month, Holomy is looking forward to placing his personal priorities at the top of the list. The 60-year-old believes now is the time to cut loose from his career.

“It has been an awesome ride. So many people through the years have worked with me and helped. I’ve laid some good groundwork here. Now Mary and I can go different places and not worry about holidays and other things involving this job. It’s time to make everything revolve around her,” Holomy said.