Chief Greg Klaiber officially leaves the City on Sept. 14 to take over as the Director of Emergency Management for Northwestern University. When he leaves home to go to work on Sept. 19, it will be the first time he has not been working for the City of Evanston’s Fire Department since March 1985.
“I still remember my first day on the job,” he told the RoundTable during an exclusive sit down meeting at the Fire Department headquarters on Sept. 6. The Fire Chief’s office, where the interview took place, “used to be a repair bay” in what was at the time the City’s largest fire house.
The first call he went on, or at least his first memorable call, was “for a car fire, and I strapped on to the back of the fire engine,” he said. At that time, firefighters still rode on the back, strapped in but clinging to a bar on the back of the vehicle itself. He remembers thinking how great the job was, and how excited he was to have it.
He was not a paramedic at the time, though he had basic emergency medical technician training. Since then, the department has required every firefighter hired to go through full paramedic training. The rule came into effect, said Chief Klaiber, in 1986.
Chief Klaiber rose through the ranks to become Evanston’s home-grown Chief in 2010. He grew up on the 1600 block of Monroe Street, he said, attending Lincoln Elementary and Nichols Middle School. After graduating from Evanston Township High School in 1978, he went on to the University of Illinois where he met, and soon married, his wife Nancy. The two lived in Glenview and Arlington Heights before deciding to move back to Evanston in 1995.
“Nancy and I talked it over, talked about where we wanted to raise our family,” he said. Evanston was home.
In 1999, Mr. Klaiber was promoted to Captain, where he remained for about nine years. Then beginning in 2008 the promotions came in whirlwind fashion: Division Chief in 2008, Deputy Chief in 2009, then interim chief – and finally fire Chief – in 2010. “Nothing in my career aspirations led me to believe [becoming fire chief] would happen.” Rising through the ranks as he did “has been gratifying,” he added.
All the while, Chief Klaiber and his wife reared three kids and put them through Evanston public schools. Chief Klaiber describes himself as “a firm believer in public education,” so much so that he served a stint on the District 65 School Board from 1999 to 2003.
All three children are now grown and out of the house, he said; two are in Colorado and one in Chicago. “I thought we’d move to Colorado when I retired,” said Chief Klaiber. His retirement has now been delayed.
As for the Northwestern job, “I was not anticipating this opportunity to come along. I had no desire to be fire chief” in any other community other than Evanston, he said. But one day while poking around the internet looking for possible jobs for his kids, he stumbled across a listing for the Northwestern job.
When looking at the job description, he found many of the qualifications sought matched his. A couple of days later, after talking the matter over with his wife, he decided to apply. The interviews apparently went well and an offer followed.
“A lot of thought went into it,” said Chief Klaiber. “I don’t think I would have taken any other position.” Instead, the plan had been to put in another three years as Evanston’s chief, then retire – probably to Colorado.
Chief Klaiber’s office shifts only a few blocks west and north, to the Northwestern Public Safety building at 1201 Davis St. His job, primarily, will be to get “an emergency response framework in place for Northwestern’s campuses in Evanston, Chicago, and [Doha,] Qatar.” University staff has to be consistently and repeatedly trained in the implementation of the plan as well.
As for shifting to work for Northwestern, Chief Klaiber admitted the existence of “underlying tension” between the City and University “over decades, really.” Northwestern uses City fire and ambulance serves but does not pay taxes to support such resources. “Over the last seven years, [the tension has] gotten a lot better.” Northwestern purchased a fire truck for Evanston, then the next year an ambulance, he said. Recently, Northwestern pledged $1 million a year for five years as a good neighbor program.
Chief Klaiber praised Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro for improving town gown relations. “It’s night-and-day from where we were 10 years ago,” he said.
One of Chief Klaiber’s goals with Evanston was to engender a “positive reputation for the department” in the community, and to get the department “engaged in the community more.” Since he took over, efforts include the creation of the Fire Explorers program for school-aged kids, the Citizen Fire Academy for adults, the File for Life for those with health issues, and community CPR classes for everyone. “The Fire Department should be more than just a 911 call,” he said. All the programs have gone well. “On a weekly basis, we receive positive comments from the community,” he said.
All has not gone as well as he hoped, however. “As for regrets, I regret that I haven’t been able to hire more local Evanston residents and more minorities” into the Evanston Fire Department, said Chief Klaiber. A state law requiring all non-Chicago fire departments to hire strictly according to a ranked list. All discretion is gone. While he said he worked with Senator Dan Biss “to get a couple of revisions” to the law, it still “negatively impacts local recruitment and minority hires.”
Fortunately, the positives outweigh the regrets. “It has been an honor and a privilege to work for this department,” said Chief Klaiber. “I am leaving the department in excellent position and in great hands.” He said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz is expected to announce an interim Chief this week, but the choice is out of Chief Klaiber’s hands.
Chief Klaiber was also quick to point out that he is not going far. “I anticipate calls” when the new Chief takes over. Northwestern will continue to work closely with Evanston’s police and fire department whenever there are incidents on campus and often in the City. “I’m still here – that’s the best part of it,” he said.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the City will conduct a nationwide search for a new fire chief, anticipating a start date of Jan. 1. In the meantime, he said he has asked Police Chief Rich Eddington “to supervise on an interim basis the Fire Department Deputy and Division Chiefs starting on Sep. 15. Operation of the Fire Department will continue as usual under this arrangement until the new Fire Chief begins work.”