Find out who Springfield to hire as new police, fire chiefs

The city of Springfield likely will promote two internal candidates as its police and fire chiefs at a time when both forces have seen turnover and retirements create several openings.

Springfield Police Division Capt. Lee Graf and Springfield Fire/Rescue Division Assistant Chief Brian Miller have been recommended to take over Dec. 1. City commissioners were expected to vote on hiring them Tuesday night.

Current Police Chief Steve Moody and Fire Chief Nick Heimlich will retire.

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Graf and Miller are experienced leaders, Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said.

“These two gentlemen kind of rise to the top,” he said.

Graf has been with the police division for 21 years while Miller has worked for the fire division for 25 years. Both live in Springfield and said it’s an honor to take over departments they’ve put a lot of work in to.

The two men beat out a handful of other candidates. Bodenmiller didn’t open the search to external candidates because he said he knew the right person for the job could be found in Springfield.

“If we didn’t have individuals capable of leading the department, I might have looked at that,” Bodenmiller said. “I was very confident in the folks that we have here at this time and their familiarity with the community, their commitment to the community. I knew what I was getting.”

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The new chiefs will face several challenges as they take their new posts, including meeting mandatory minimum staffing levels, but Bodenmiller said he’s confident they will address those issues.

“We have had a lot of employees that left for other departments and that is a challenge,” he said. “We will continue to have some diversity challenges. We need to be more representative of our community and I know they are both committed to that as well.”

Each chief will be paid more than $92,000 a year to start.

These two jobs are high-pressure, intense positions, Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said.

“They’ve got very important jobs,” Copeland said. “These two folks, who I have known over time, have been very active in connecting with the community.”

Police Chief Lee Graf

Graf grew up in a family committed to public service and said he knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life.

He served in the Marines for six years, including in combat during Operation Desert Storm, before joining the Springfield Police Division in 1996.

“It’s exciting but it’s a very challenging job,” Graf said. “I don’t go into this without a little nervousness. It’s big shoes to fill. But it’s also very exciting.”

The division has done a good job making community connections, he said, and he wants to see those relationships continue to grow.

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“We need to double-down on that and do better,” Graf said.

He’s also inheriting some challenges.

By the beginning 0f next year, Springfield police will be down about 20 positions. The minimum manning level required by the city charter is 124 officers.

“We’ve got a lot of recruitment to do,” he said. “We are hiring right now.”

The hiring process plays a big role in continuing to improve community relations, he said.

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“Some of our challenges that we would like to see is bringing in young people, being more representative of our community — we are always striving for diversity across all lines,” Graf said. “We can always do better with that because that helps.”

One of the goals for Graf is putting together a Safe Street Task Force promised during the city’s campaign to pass an income tax increase earlier this year.

“It’s a commitment that we are glad to make,” he said. “We want a team out particularly during the warmer months that are tasked with addressing quality of life issues. General neighborhood issues whether it be drugs, speeders, loud car stereos.”

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That team of four or five officers will help the division better serve residents, he said. He doesn’t have a specific timeline for when it will be running.

Fire Chief Brian Miller

Miller began his career at the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division in 1992.

“I kind of fell into it,” he said. “It looked like an interesting job. I took the test and I really wanted to locate in Springfield. I fell into a career that I loved.”

He has been in Springfield since then, which he said will be an advantage for him.

“You get things done by having a relationship with others,” he said. “I feel like I have good relationships with most of the employees and I am hoping to take advantage of that and gain some buy-in and improve morale and move the department forward.”

He wants to be an active fire chief, he said. That means getting out from behind a desk, being more visible, and improving trust and communication, Miller said.

One challenge the department faces is the ever-climbing number of EMS runs, he said, with 50 to 60 a day. The division has made more than 15,000 medic runs so far this year.

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“We have a health-care crisis in this country and we fill a piece of that gap,” Miller said. “The opioid epidemic is a piece of that, the aging population is a piece. It’s difficult but we are trying to address that. Our runs do go up every year.”

The rising numbers stress resources significantly, he said.

“It’s something that we are looking at,” he said. “There is some brainstorming to be done and difficult problems to address.”

The issues have affected morale at the department, Miller said, but that’s because the employees care a lot about the people in Springfield.

The minimum manning requirement for the fire division is 127 firefighter/paramedics. It currently has eight vacancies and two retirements coming up.

“Current Chief Nick Heimlich is very observant,” Miller said. “He used the term ‘compassion fatigue.’ I think that’s an excellent description of what our department is going through right now. People get frustrated when they see the same problem day in and day out and they don’t feel they have a solution. Our guys are problem solvers and doers and they feel like kind of helpless.”

By the numbers

127: Minimum manning requirement for Springfield Fire

124: Minimum manning requirement for Springfield Police

21: Lee Graf’s years of experience at the Springfield Police Division

25: Brian Miller’s years of experience at the Springfield Fire Division

$92,000: Approximate salary for each new chief

Continuing Coverage

The Springfield News-Sun provides unmatched coverage of public safety issues in Clark and Champaign counties, including recent stories on dangerous intersections and the drug crisis and how it affects police and firefighters.

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