Joel Thacker's first call to firefighting came from the results of a written test he took before he even could drive a car, let alone a big fire engine.
None of his family members were firefighters. He had no relatives encouraging him.
For Thacker, it was a career aptitude test in the eighth or ninth grade that steered him toward a profession that would become his passion.
The test results indicated that Thacker, the new chief of the Columbus Fire Department and the city's first director of emergency management, would do well as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.
It just so happened — and helped — that the White River Township Fire Department operated down the street from his parents' home in the Center Grove area of Johnson County.
Thacker, 38, a lifelong Johnson County resident, started volunteering as a junior firefighter at age 16. By the time he graduated from high school, he had been certified as a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
His love of the fire service took off.
"You want to wake up and love going to work every day, and I truly do," Thacker said. "I think you'll find almost everybody in the fire service does."
Mayor Kristen Brown selected Thacker, a 20-year veteran of the fire, rescue and emergency medical services, to lead the city's 98 firefighters and six fire stations. He was sworn in May 22.
The mayor also has assigned Thacker to develop a city disaster plan that sets policies for disaster response, ranging from tornadoes and flooding to man-made incidents.
Brown said Thacker stood out among the many candidates who interviewed for the chief's job. Candidates came from inside and outside the department.
"His reputation is beyond reproach," Brown said. "His knowledge, leadership skills and experience are particularly vital as we progress the Fire Department to include rescue services and emergency services."
Thacker held every job in the White River Township Fire Department, including lieutenant, captain, shift battalion chief, chief of training and safety, chief of emergency medical services and chief of administration.
He holds advanced certifications in everything from paramedic work and fire investigations to hazardous materials response and rescue techniques. Thacker also has developed and implemented polices and procedures for firefighting, emergency medical services, disaster response and mitigation plans, and hazardous material response.
Roger Johnson, president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, said it has become more common for administrators to come from outside fire departments as cities strive to find talented, well-educated leaders.
He said Thacker, whom he has known for about 15 years, was a good fit for Columbus and would help develop the department, especially in emergency medical services, rescue work and disaster response.
"He's passionate about looking out for the public," Johnson said. "We embrace the same thought process and share progressive ideas."
Those ideas include creating uniform training for firefighters statewide and reaching out to work more closely with volunteer departments, Johnson said.
Thacker said he would listen and observe before instituting any changes to the department.
He said he would make sure firefighters had the tools, training and education needed to provide the highest level of service as cost efficiently as possible.
"The role of the fire chief is not to respond to incidents," Thacker said. "It is to manage, lead and create a vision for the organization that the men and women of the department join with and help come to life."
In his first eight days, Thacker helped change city policy regulating the use of tornado sirens and promoted a firefighter to battalion chief to fill a vacancy left by a recent retirement.
David Frizzell, a Republican state representative from Indianapolis, said he has known Thacker for more than a decade.
"He's a thoughtful, engaging man," Frizzell said. "He's very meticulous about his responsibilities and getting them done. He's always there and giving of his time."
Frizzell also noted Thacker's devotion to his family, including his wife, Julie, his 18-year-old daughter, Elaina, and his son, Aidan, 7.
Asked about his Memorial Day weekend, Thacker quickly told about his daughter's graduation from high school and her future at Taylor University, where she will play golf.
He also talks about his son's development and comfort at the elementary school he attends in the Center Grove area.
Thacker's ties to Johnson County and his son's involvement in school there have entered into discussions with his wife about whether the family will move to Columbus.
Before the opportunity to become fire chief presented itself, Thacker said he knew of the city's good reputation and had visited it before, taking advantage of some of its amenities, such as kidscommons. He said he plans to be heavily involved in the community no matter where he lives.
Frizzell said Columbus had chosen a solid leader in Thacker.
"It was no surprise to me that he got this opportunity in Columbus," Frizzell said. "For all of us, we knew it was just a matter of time. I think your community should rest assured that you have a great professional there."
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