She may not know you personally, but Evanston Division Fire Chief Kimberly Kull says she thinks about your safety every day.
Kull is the highest-ranking woman in the department, reporting directly to Fire Chief Paul Polep. She’s responsible for emergency management and logistics within the department and is also the Public Information Officer, also called a PIO.
It’s Kull’s job to help those who live and work in the city prepare for a variety of emergencies, both natural and otherwise. She also must ensure the department is ready to respond. But she’s been training for this job her entire life.
“Being a firefighter was something I wanted to do as a little girl, and emergency medicine has been a passion for as long as I can remember,” Kull told the RoundTable. “I’ve been called to a life of service, and I believe each of us has a responsibility to serve one another in whichever way we’ve been called.”
Growing up, Kull said, her childhood and life with her single mother was tumultuous. She moved more than 30 times, and 15 of those were before she had graduated high school. She moved out at age 17 and has been on her own since.
The first six months, she was joined by her sister. Those days were “not pretty,” she said.
Nevertheless they were character-building. She said that knowing you can make do with practically nothing, even if that might require washing your clothes in the bathtub or eating lettuce sandwiches, builds confidence and resilience. The stress of all those moves made her adaptable, she said: she knows she can handle change.
Preparing to lead
Kull graduated from Quincy University, a private, liberal arts college in Quincy, Ill., about a stone’s throw from the Missouri border. She left with three bachelors degrees: in biological sciences, fire science and philosophy with a focus on biomedical ethics. She is also a trained Emergency Medical Technician, like all Evanston firefighters.
Kull was told when she started at the Evanston Fire Department in May 2000 that she was the first woman hired in 17 years.
Newbie firefighters ‘float’ between different firehouses early on. When Kull first started, she spent most of her time at Fire Station 2 on Madison Street or Fire Station 3 on Central Street near Evanston Hospital. Early in her career she had the opportunity to learn to drive the truck and to learn tillering, which is the position in the back of the rig.
“Not everyone welcomed me with open arms,” she recalled with a smile, “but for the most part, I have been very lucky. I’ve had great mentors and wonderful opportunities.”
Kull continued with on-the-job training and additional certifications. She has been a part of the department’s mentoring, training and standard operating guideline committees as well as its dive team and Evanston surface water rescue team.
She made captain in 2010, acting battalion chief in 2018-2019 and was promoted to her current role in 2019.
Do your best to face the worst
All of her experience and skills are necessary for the job she has today, which calls for Kull to anticipate a number of possibilities from a variety of emergencies.
She’s responsible for high-level strategic planning, execution and implementation, which means she updates and refines the city-wide plans, builds partnerships with other organizations, rehearses to improve the city’s responses and looks at all the boots-on-the-ground minutiae.
In the emergency service world, “preparing” means at least two things: being ready in case the worst happens and thinking ahead to mitigate existing risks.
Kull said it’s somewhat like driving: When you’re in the car with a fully charged cell phone, that’s preparation; but wearing a seatbelt is mitigation. While there may still be a car accident, mitigating circumstances increase your chance of survival.
But Kull also is responsible for the department’s day-to-day operations.
“The logistics portion of my job requires that I manage our fire stations, fire equipment, fire gear, COVID testing, some personnel matters, IT equipment and special events taking place in Evanston.”
Much of her day is spent in meetings with city officials from other departments, partner organizations within and outside Evanston and nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross.
Community planning and readiness go hand in hand, Kull said. To be ready, she wants to involve as many community groups as possible, including faith groups of all denominations.
As a department of one, she said it’s imperative to be able to forge alliances everywhere to make sure her message is heard and that groups with resources join the effort.
Never stop training
Kull is calm and soft-spoken. As a petite woman, she said it initially was harder to carry hoses and people, but she trained until she could do it.
Nor is she afraid to admit when she doesn’t know something.
A few years ago, she knew she needed more community preparedness training to be ready for 21st century disasters such as climate change, public health emergencies, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
To help her prepare for her job, Kull enrolled in Georgetown University’s Executive Master’s program in Emergency and Disaster Management, which she completed in 2019.
Classes were held online, but there were mandatory, weeklong “residencies” that provided onsite discussions and classes.
As part of her curriculum, she traveled to Hawaii to learn about the effects of climate change and weather disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions; to Paris to study international terrorism and meet with the teams that responded to the November 2015 attacks at the Bataclan theater, and to London, where she studied the 2005 London train bombings.
Meeting with and learning from colleagues all over the world was one of the best parts of the program, she said.
She laughs easily and smiles readily. Family photos of her children and husband decorate her office, along with firefighter memorabilia, supplies and assorted charts.
“I feel like my husband should get a degree as well, because his efforts were monumental, as well as my children,” she said. “When I first got promoted to this spot right here, I was working 17-, 18-hour days between school and work, and it was an awful push. And [I’m here] because of Dan, my husband, and my mother-in-law, Julie.”
She and Dan met when she was helping his father renovate an investment property where he was the landlord. Being a landlord was a good source of extra income, but like all her projects, it also helped in her work as a firefighter.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn more if you’re going to be in a fire, if you can actually have a better understanding of the building materials you’re using,” she said. “You understand more about how to keep your crew safe, keep yourself safe and just have clarity with how things are constructed.”
Kull said she hopes Evanstonians will take time to make a disaster plan with their family and loved ones; build emergency supply kits – one each for home, office and car – and be prepared to act when it’s needed.
According to Kull, it’s not a matter of if, but of when.
“Everyone should find a way to turn their passions into service to their family, friends and community. If COVID has done nothing else, it has highlighted how interdependent we are on one another and that we can all be heroes in our own right.”
Sign up for emergency preparedness
One of the easiest steps anyone in Evanston can and should take is to sign up for the free EvanstonAlerts Emergency Notification System.
Those without online access can call 311 and ask for assistance. The system is the first line of defense for finding out “about imminent threats to health and safety,” according to the city’s website.
The Fire Department provides guidance and resources that are free or low-cost and is also hosting an emergency preparedness fair at the Robert Crown Center sometime in the fall at a date to be announced in the coming weeks.