Prospect Heights Fire Chief Drew Smith was sworn in last month as the department's fifth chief in its 72-year history. It came after a 35-year career with the department, including the last 16 as deputy chief.
But, more than the numbers, Smith says the appointment was a dream come true.
He met with Prospect Heights residents for the first time as chief during an open house Saturday and wrote a letter expressing his vision for the department in its latest newsletter.
"When I joined the department, it was an all-volunteer fire department," Smith said. "It would not be until 1985 that paramedic ambulance service would come to our city, and another 10 more years until the majority of the city would be united into a single fire protection district.
"A lot has changed in that time," he adds, "but one thing that remains the same is the dedication of the members who serve as firefighters and paramedics."
Smith demonstrates that firsthand. As early as 10 years old, Smith says he knew he wanted to be a firefighter and he has never looked back.
He dates his experience to freshman year at Prospect High School, when he was a member of Mount Prospect's civil defense unit as well as a member of a Fire Explorers Post in Des Plaines.
By the time he was a junior, Smith had joined the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Fire Cadet program, which allowed him and 11 other students to attend school in the morning and spend their afternoons at the Mount Prospect Fire Station for training.
"It was very hands-on," Smith recalls. "We got to go out on calls and work with the firefighters."
Rather than taking the traditional college path after graduation, Smith went to work as a technician at Northwest Community Hospital and at a private ambulance company before landing a role as a volunteer firefighter in Prospect Heights.
"I didn't start college until I was 30," Smith says, pointing to his associate degree from Harper College and his undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University in fire service management.
"At first, all I wanted to do was be a fireman," he says, "but I quickly realized that I needed a college degree to advance."
His own story reflects the current trend in fire service. Of the 50 full- and part-time firefighters and paramedics in Prospect Heights, nearly all have college degrees.
Smith worked his way up, from serving as the district's medical officer to being promoted to lieutenant and, in 1989, to battalion chief. He was among the first full-time staff members hired by the fire protection district in 2000, along with Donald Gould, his predecessor as chief, and Tim Jones, who, like him, was a deputy chief.
Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer describes Smith as a "quiet leader and consensus builder."
"The great thing about Drew is that he listens," Helmer said. "He knows the business -- not only fire service, but he knows people and how to treat people."
As one of two deputy chiefs, Smith's role was to supervise training as well as the district's paramedic program.
"I'm always trying to see how we can improve procedures," Smith says. "I try and learn something new from every call we go out on and see if we can't do things better."
Ten years ago, Smith's dedication to fire service -- and his community -- was recognized when he was inducted into Prospect High School's Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame. His photo and plaque still hangs on the school's wall of fame.
"I still love coming to work every day," Smith says. "I love the guys and the diversity of our department."