In 1986, Jim Urban was rapidly moving up the corporate ladder holding a vice president position with Heller Financial. But a passion for ladders of a more literal nature compelled him to make a career change.
“Jim left a corporate job and they really wanted to keep him,” Katie Urban, his wife of 25 years said. “They asked him, ‘What can we do to keep you?’ Jim said, ‘Can you park a big red fire truck out in front of the building?’ He knew what he wanted to do.”
Urban, 50, will be retiring from the Forest Park Fire Department in mid-August after a memorable 21-year run of service anchored in relationships with his fellow firefighters and the residents of Forest Park.
“It’s been the greatest job in the world without a doubt,” Urban said. “Where else can you get a job where little kids will stare at you with looks of admiration on their faces? I really like getting out there and helping people.”
Helping people, in the most vital sense for Urban, means saving lives by putting out fires, but it also includes a plethora of other more subtle ways to have an impact on the community.
“We do it across the board,” said Urban, a 25-year resident of Forest Park. “It might mean replacing a battery on a smoke detector for a senior citizen. It may not seem like a big deal to the rest of the world, but for that person it means a lot.”
A typical work day for Urban and his fellow firefighters is rooted in regimen, barring any calls to action. In the fire station, Urban’s 24-hour work day consists of the following: morning roll call, equipment check, house cleaning, lunch, monthly Emergency Medical Services education and firefighter classes, physical conditioning, dinner, a few hours of paperwork, and maybe watching television before bed.
The shifts call for extensive interaction between seven firefighters, groups Urban regards as a second family. The firefighters work a schedule that keeps them at the station for a full 24 hours between 48-hour breaks. There are 23 employees led by Fire Chief Steve Glinke.
“Far and away, what I’ll miss most is the people I work with (here) at the station,” Urban said. “We all know each other and our families. There’s a certain perception that you train as a firefighter to save your own life but that’s not true. You train to save somebody else’s life. We depend on each other if something goes wrong.”
The possibility that something might go wrong is never far from Katie Urban’s mind, and that worry has had its influence. Rather than send him off with a typical farewell, Katie Urban has made a point never to bid her husband adieu when he leaves for work.
“Every day he has left for work as a firefighter, I never say goodbye but rather I love you,” Katie Urban said. “He has been an excellent firefighter.”
Urban cited his first fire, the Bowlers Club on Madison Street, which burned down in the mid-1980s, as one of his more harrowing experiences. He also still remembers the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the swift response of police and firefighters on that day.
“The feelings haven’t gone away,” Urban said. “I feel tremendous sorrow but also immense pride about the entire firefighting family.”
When he takes his last roll call on Wednesday morning, Aug. 15, it will be a bittersweet moment for Urban and his firefighting comrades.
“Jimmy is a very kind-hearted person who will do anything to help you out,” Tom Matousek, who has worked as a firefighter for 28 years said. “We will all miss his dedication to life in the firehouse. He really ensures everything runs smoothly.”
Urban has plans to continue working as a building supervisor at Walther Lutheran High School, and intends to spend more time with his wife and two sons, Michael and Steven. Urban has grandson now as well.
“I’m getting older and I wanted to pursue some other career interests,” Urban said. “I figured it’s better to go out as a firefighter at the top of my game.”