Fire service, farming interests develop into careers for Ottawa fire chief

After attending a youth program hosted by Marseilles Ambulance, Brian Bressner knew he wanted to focus on a career as a fire fighter and paramedic. Bressner, who is the fire chief for the Ottawa Fire Department, also farms with Tim Geiger, who serves as the fire chief for the Grand Ridge Volunteer Fire Department.

OTTAWA, Ill. — Brian Bressner’s interest in farming and the fire service began at a very young age.

“Growing up from 2 years old on I had to be in the combine, the tractor or grain truck, whatever was going on — I had to be part of it,” said Bressner, who grew up on a family farm near Grand Ridge in north-central Illinois.

“I could tell you coming down the road, the model number of the tractor by the sound,” Bressner said.

“During harvest season, my grandma would leave a quarter for me, and I as soon as I got off the bus, I would get my quarter and run out to the grain truck,” he said.

“Because at the grain elevator they had the Coke machine with the glass bottles, so Grandma would make sure I had a quarter to get my Coke.”

Living in a small community, Bressner said, when the fire trucks would go by his house, he often jumped in the car with his mom or grandmother to find out what was going on.

“I didn’t know how to get into the fire service until high school when my best friend and I went to a Fun Night that was organized by Marseilles Ambulance to get youth involved in fire and EMS,” said Bressner, who is now the fire chief for the Ottawa Fire Department. “That completely changed my way of thinking of what I wanted to do after high school.”

During his senior year at Marquette High School, Bressner took the emergency medical technician basic class and he did a co-op program at Marseilles where he would leave school and go to the station.

“I would do rig checks, learn EMT skills and run calls,” he said. “It was a great program to allow youth to get more involved.”

At the same time, Bressner also was involved with farming responsibilities. After his uncles retired from farming, he helped Ed Hettel while attending high school.

“During harvest season we’d combine and fill the wagons at night and in the morning. I would take the wagons to the elevator before I went to school,” Bressner said.

“Ed retired when I was just out of high school and Tim Geiger farmed with his dad and uncle, so I started helping them,” he said. “Tim was an Ottawa fireman, I was a fireman and we both wanted to farm so it meshed together.”

“Tim and I have farmed together for several years and now Tim’s son wants to be a fireman,” Bressner said. “So, it is almost like we have a fire-farm family.”

Ottawa is a full-time department that runs from 4,300 to 4,400 calls a year.

“There are times when it can be stressful here so being in the sprayer, field cultivator or semi can be a stress relief,” Bressner said. “Yesterday, I sprayed close to 500 acres to get ready for both planters going today.”

Bressner started at the Ottawa Fire Department in 2007 as a firefighter and paramedic. He was named lieutenant in 2017 and deputy chief in 2019.

“I was promoted to fire chief on April 1, 2022,” said Bressner, who had set the goal to achieve this position.

The Ottawa Fire Department is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have a minimum of nine people per day, but that changes on May 1 because we’re in the process of specking out Station 3 on the north side of Ottawa,” Bressner said. “We received $1 million of federal funding for Station 3 and the city allowed us to hire nine additional people.”

This is significant progress for the city.

“It’s huge to go from 27 to 36 people because we’re busy,” Bressner said. “We’re the biggest full-time department in this area.”

In addition to the city limits of Ottawa, the fire department also covers EMS for the Naplate Fire Department and the Wallace Fire Protection District.

“We do mutual aid, so if Grand Ridge has a fire or medical call, we’re usually going,” Bressner said. “Same thing for Marseilles, Utica, Serena, Sheridan or Earlville.”

When things get busy at the station, Bressner jumps into action when necessary to answer a pending call.

“If all the rigs are out, I’ll go if we have another call,” he said. “We have our car set up with basic life support so we can start treating the patient prior to the ambulance getting there and we’ve had to do that several times over the past couple of months because our call volume is increasing.”

At the main station, there is a staffed engine company and two staffed ambulances.

“With the increased staffing, we’re going to have a jump company that will jump between the tower truck and the ambulance,” Bressner said. “It will depend on what call they get, which vehicle they take.”

That company will move to the third station when it is built.

“At Station 2, we have a jump company of two or three people and they have an ambulance and engine, so it depends on the call for which vehicle they take,” Bressner said.

The location for the third station has not been determined.

“The grant money doesn’t cover the cost of a brand new fire station, so we will work with the USDA for the loan process,” Bressner said.

“We would like to have everything done with the architects so we can put out for bids by November and break ground by the spring of 2025,” he said. “We’re anticipating it will take a year to build, so we’re hoping by this time in 2026, we’ll be opening the new station.”

For Bressner, the best part of his job is the camaraderie and brotherhood he has with other firefighters and paramedics.

“For farming, it is the sense of pride and accomplishment like we have at the fire service,” he said. “Farming is a lifelong family tradition and way of life.”

However, balancing both his fire chief and farming responsibilities can be difficult.

“During the spring and harvest seasons, it’s a challenge to spend quality time with my two boys,” he said.

Bressner could be involved with harvesting corn in the fall when he needs to stop for a fire call.

“The good thing with Tim is he is the fire chief at Grand Ridge, so if we get a fire call in Ottawa, the Grand Ridge Fire Department is probably coming, too,” Bressner said.

“The fire service is the best job,” he said. “I also have the second best job with farming and a wife that appreciates me doing both.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor