Wendel steps down as Chester fire chief

Chris Keller accepts the fire chief hat from former chief Jeff Wendel, who will now be just one of the guys.

Chris Keller accepts the fire chief hat from former chief Jeff Wendel, who will now be just one of the guys.

By Marcie Klomp

“It’s time for the younger guys to take over,” said longtime Chester Fire Chief Jeff Wendel.

He surprised everyone, including his son, James, and son-in-law Chris Keller, at the Sept. 24 fire department meeting when he said he was stepping down. He will continue to be a “regular” firefighter and give advice if needed, but will not be the man in charge. He turned that honor over to Assistant Chief Keller.

“The rest of the guys must have thought they could trust me, because they voted me in that night,” said the new chief.

Wendel has been on the fire department since 1977, or 37 years, and had been fire chief for over 20. He took over the job from Red Eggerichs.

In that time, the biggest change he has seen is in equipment. He remembers, “When I first started, we had the old rubber raincoats. Compare that to what we have today!”

Under his command, he has seen trucks updated and a new fire station built. He has also increased the number of trainings the men go through on a monthly basis. He is proud of the team as he always has a full roster and the firefighters are all very active in attending meetings, trainings and emergencies, as well as showing up for fund-raisers.

First and foremost, though, Wendel thanks the community. “What we have is through the help of everyone in the community. We couldn’t have what we have today without the support of the community.”

As the department has morphed from a small-town department to one with some of the most well-trained crew members in the area, Wendel has also grown. In the past few years he has taken on the role of teacher.

He instructs FireFighter I and II classes, along with RIT (Rapid Intervention Team). “RIT training is to learn how to react if one firefighter goes down, these guys are trained how to get them out faster. It is helping one of our own,” the former chief explained.

Now that Wendel has traded hats (He is now a worker bee.), he can dedicate more time to training. He is also looking forward to getting dirty, so to speak, during a fire. During emergencies, he felt the need to always be in charge of the scene, not helping with the hands-on part of the volunteer job.

He leaves the top position at Chester Fire Department with little worries as he totally trusts Keller, who has been on the department for 16 years and was assistant chief for 10.
Keller has FF I and II and is an instructor at level 1. He is also Hazmat-certified and is a First Responder.

“I plan on keeping things going the way they have been—maintaining and continuing to service the community like we’ve been doing,” the new chief stated.

It was a fairly easy transition from assistant to chief. “Jeff didn’t have anything that wasn’t taken care of. We have a full roster. I hope to keep all the working relationships with the community and mutual aid departments.”

Other changes to the roster included moving Chuck Larson into the assistant chief position. T.J. Reicks continues as second assistant chief and James Wendel and Adam Hamilton are still co-training officers.

Keller is happy he joined the department all those years ago. “For one reason, you get to help the community. It feels good to help someone out. It is a badge of pride and honor to put on the coat and drive the truck.”

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