North Chicago Fire Chief laid down her camera to save lives

Dell Urban: Trailblazer

by Long Hwa-shu

Dell Urban considers herself one of the guys. But she is the boss.

Urban is chief of the North Chicago Fire Department, overseeing 36 fire-fighters. In fact she’s one of the few female fire chiefs in the country.

“I’m honored and I love my job. To me it’s the best in the world,” said Urban who was appointed fire chief in 2012.

Urban who grew up in Wadsworth and graduated from Warren Township High School in 1987 actually had her sights on becoming a photographer. She hoped to get a job with National Geographic Magazine. That is until her brother Lonnie, a volunteer at Newport Township Fire Department, took her to the Wadsworth fire station in 1988.

Dell Urban Lonnie Urban
Dell Urban, right, with her brother Lonnie Urban when they were both volunteers at the Newport Township Fire Department. – Dell Urban photo

She liked what she saw, and soon she too was a volunteer of the department.

“I signed on and got my feet wet,” recalled Urban, then 18, who had been accepted by Columbia College in Chicago intending to study photography.

“I think I made the right decision to become a fire-fighter instead. I still keep photography as a hobby,” said Urban who has a Canon D-5 camera that she said needs repair.

To pursue a career in fire-fighting, she went to the College of Lake County and received an associate degree in emergency management and fire science technology. She also went to Oakton College to further her studies. Meanwhile, she kept herself in shape. As an entry-level fire-fighter, she said she had to be agile with the ability to run 1. 5 miles, climb the ladder and drag a load of 180 pounds, among other requirements.

After four years as a volunteer, Urban, now a certified fire-fighter, joined the North Chicago Fire Department as a paramedic. Rising steadily, she was promoted to lieutenant, medical officer and then shift commander before appointed fire chief by Mayor Leon Rockingham with a nod from the City Council.

North Chicago Fire Chief since 2012 is Dell Urban. The Libertyville resident once wanted to be a professional photographer.
North Chicago Fire Chief since 2012 is Dell Urban. The Libertyville resident who grew up in Wadsworth once wanted to be a professional photographer. – Tiffany Chiappetta photo

“I rose from the rank and I’m very proud that the city entrusted me with the job as the fire chief,” said Urban, 46, who is single and lives in Libertyville.

Mayor Rockingham lauded her for her leadership and said she was instrumental in securing grants to enable the city to hire additional fire-fighters and to obtain new equipment including the aerial truck and ambulance.

“She has all the wonderful attributes of a leader and has done a great deal to improve our fire department,” said the mayor.

As chief, she heads a staff of 37 people including 36 fire-fighters. Her department is equipped with three fire engines, one aerial truck with an 85-foot ladder and three ambulances. There are two females on her staff: Lt. Kim Schaefer and fire-fighter Michelle Miller.

“We’re very fortunate to have a good, able and hard-working staff,” said Urban who was nominated last year by the Lake County Fire Chiefs as chief of the year for Illinois. In 2013 she was honored by the late Illinois treasurer Judy Baar Topinka for her 25 years of dedicated service as a firefighter. The North Chicago Chamber of Commerce also named her Firefighter of the Year in 1994.

The North Chicago Fire Department covers the city of eight square miles, but it is also on call to provide mutual aid to 29 neighboring communities.

“I get up early in the morning never knowing what’s going to happen. Every day is different. Some days are calm and others are chaotic. That’s the fascinating thing about the job,” she said.

She remembers the first day on the job as lieutenant, she had to go out to stop a fire at the North Chicago High School that caused a million-dollars in damage. As chief, she has handled a number of critical fires. In fires and accidents, she makes sure that her department responds as quickly as possible and handles any situation to its best and fullest ability.

“I’m on call every day at all hours,” said Urban.

Dell Urban, front center, with other fire officials at a recent funeral. - Dell Urban photo
Dell Urban, front center, with other fire officials at a recent firefighter funeral. – North Chicago Fire Department photo

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