Although he has only been the City of Columbus’ fire chief for just over a year, Dan Miller said he began dreaming of serving in the role almost two decades ago.
Back in 2000, Miller was often making trips to town to help lead a hazardous materials course at Central Community College-Columbus for various organizations through his part-time work with a private company. It was then Miller, who was also a member of the Omaha Fire Department at the time, got the idea in his head.
“I really got a good view of Columbus. I was intrigued by the industrial aspects of the community, and the more I looked at Columbus over the years, I thought this would be a great place to be a fire chief someday,” said Miller, who has been an EMT since 1984 and spent nearly 20 years with the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office as a part-time instructor. “I never really took my eye off of that.”
Good thing, too. Miller was hired in August 2017 to serve as the city’s first full-time fire chief (it had previously been a volunteer position), and since then, has created a new and more efficient culture within the department that boasts 15 career firefighters and rescue personnel, as well as about five dozen volunteers.
“I’ve been impressed with him since he got here,” City Administrator Tara Vasicek said. “He has been a good fit, a really great chief.”
One of the Columbus fire chief’s priorities has been advanced planning, which includes setting up staff and volunteers for success.
“It has been about building a team that can effectively work together,” he said, noting 10 percent of all calls that come into the department are overlapping, which can lead to chaos if plans aren’t in place. “So advanced planning is important, especially in those kinds of emergencies. I’m working to systemize some of our programs, like the way we respond to calls, so that we systematically have personnel who are trained, certified and effective in ways to respond to calls 24/7 365 with backup.”
Part of that effort has been creating the rigorous Volunteer Fire Academy that is conducted throughout the year and making it a requirement for all who want to help the department in action. Miller is the kind of guy who likes to get right in the trenches with his troops, which is why he trains with his team as part of the department’s firefighter functional fitness program and regularly goes out on calls.
“It’s important I physically show them what my expectations are,” he said. “If I can do it, then I know you can do it as well.”
The physical and mental work, as well as the long hours the job requires, are nothing to Miller. He said he was just 16 when he joined the Yutan Volunteer Fire Department in part due to his best friend’s father, who was the chief there at the time.
“He was a very good leader,” the Yutan native said. “He inspired me to kind of follow in his footsteps in a lot of ways.”
Growing up in a house with his father who was quite the handyman, Miller ended up earning associate degrees in fire science technology and electronics from Metropolitan Community College after graduating from high school. He landed a job out of college in the electronics field, however, said he kept desiring to pursue a career in firefighting and finally decided to give it a go despite his career success thus far.
In 1991, Miller joined the Millard Fire District, a combination volunteer/career department. Over the course of seven years, he advanced to the role of captain before the district merged with Omaha in 1998. He spent the next 20 years there serving in various roles, including captain, chief of training and special operations and battalion chief. In the latter role, which he was promoted to in 2012, among his many duties was supervising the Omaha fire training division and after that a suppression battalion including four fire stations.
When the opportunity to come to Columbus presented itself last year, Miller said it was perfect timing.
“I’m fortunate to have achieved my ultimate career goals because that’s not always the case,” Miller said. “I thought for sure I’d take the role in a similar community, but to have it be the actual community that got me inspired to do this in the first place, as far as being a chief, I was pretty fortunate. It has been a blessing.”
Vasicek said Miller is committed to all aspects of the role, noting his dedication to public service. She said the fire chief was a key player in the planning of the new fire station. In May, voters approved a $16 million bond that supported the construction of separate fire and police stations. The new fire station will be built on land just north of Howard Boulevard/U.S. Highway 81 between 46th and 47th avenues, effectively moving CFD from downtown to the west end of Columbus when complete.
“Dan has taken every opportunity he can to make sure the Columbus Fire Department is operating efficiently,” Vasicek said.
For Miller, being part of the planning for the new fire station and seeing it come to fruition has been rewarding. His college degrees and experience with budgeting proved to be quite helpful through that process. Having served on building committees for two fire stations elsewhere in the past also came in handy.
“I think the bond vote going in a positive direction was a huge accomplishment,” said Miller, who was named the Nebraska Veterans of Foreign Wars Firefighter of the Year in 2000 and Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors’ Instructor of the Year in 2012. “Having accomplished that, I feel really good. I feel like there’s a tremendous amount of support in the community for public safety. That’s a really good thing for the fire department in general.”
The future is a point of emphasis for Miller, who said he’s focused on developing standard procedures and practices so that the department can function successfully decades into the future -- well past his tenure. He said it’s not lost on him that he’s the city’s first full-time chief, noting he takes a lot of pride in it. It’s also why he has no plans of stepping away any time soon. Miller said he generally enjoys the change in hours (he can work 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. one day and a completely different shift the other depending on what’s happening) and the camaraderie among the firefighters.
“Not every day is peaches and cream; there are challenging days, but I enjoy participating in helping provide solutions,” he said. “I just enjoy the opportunity to be involved and make a difference in people’s lives, those young and old. It’s been very rewarding to help develop future careers and the interaction with other people.
“I appreciate having the opportunity to live out my dreams and being able to come to a job that is never the same on any given day. I can always expect something new, challenging and exciting every day.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.