Purdue Profiles: Kevin Ply

October 18, 2011

Kevin Ply, fire chief for the Purdue University Fire Department. (Purdue photo/Mark Simons)

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Only a few U.S. university campuses have fire departments, so Kevin Ply feels lucky to have spent the past 23 years at the Purdue University Fire Department. As fire chief, he has been leading the way for campus fire prevention and in 2010 was recognized as Indiana Fire Chief of the Year.

From creating fire safety videos for college students to working closely with fraternities, sororities, co-ops and residence halls on individual inspections and fire prevention, he works with his team to keep the Purdue community safe.

Ply intends to fulfill the mission of the fire service "to save lives and property" during the estimated 2,600 emergency runs the PUFD will make this year. Whether a damaging storm, a hazardous materials spill or an airplane fire, he is confident it will be handled with expertise and courage.

How did you become interested in working as a firefighter?

I was actually working management at Home Hospital in Lafayette at the time, with no expectation of becoming a firefighter, and I met a gentleman who was a volunteer fire chief in the area I lived. He invited me to stop by the station, and almost immediately I was hooked.

When I visited the station, there was a great group of guys, a busy run schedule, and it just called to me. I absorbed everything I could. I went to every class. I signed up for emergency medical technician school. I decided I would do everything I could do to be the best firefighter I could be.

You started out as a volunteer firefighter. How did you make the transition to a career fire chief?

The Purdue fire department was the only place I ever looked when I started thinking about becoming a career firefighter. This department is really unique in that everyone on staff here is a hazardous materials technician, and we are all airport firefighter certified. The wide range of things we do keeps things interesting.

What does it mean to you to have been named Indiana Fire Chief of the Year in 2010 by your peers?

As a campus fire department, we don't operate under the traditional structure, so it was surprising when my peers in the fire service recognized the efforts of our department. They recognized that we're doing top-notch work, expanding fire prevention services and providing unmatched pre-hospital care. This award is not just for me. It's for all the work everybody here has done.

How is the PUFD taking steps to improve campus fire safety?

The U.S. Fire Administration recently funded a grant through People's Burn Foundation for us to produce a campus fire safety video. Most college-aged students don't receive fire safety education after grade school, so we developed a video keeping this in mind. We followed the video with some interactive games about relevant issues for college students -- cooking safety and partying smart.

Also, in 2007 we were able to create a position for a fire prevention specialist, and this year we added two more fire prevention officers to our staff. They provide inspection services to the 65 fraternity, sorority and cooperative houses at Purdue. They provide fire safety education, coordinates CPR/AED and fire extinguisher training for faculty, staff and students.

The fire prevention division of the department had created a Fire and Life Safety Guide to assist the Greek organizations, not only at Purdue, but also at other universities and colleges, to improve fire safety. This year we introduced a Building Emergency Plan template to help the Greek and cooperative houses develop evacuation and shelter procedures. The fire prevention division is available to discuss fire prevention programs at chapter meetings and to help plan Greek events.

In what ways are you involved in fire safety education nationally?
I'm currently the third vice president for the Indiana Fire Chiefs Association. I recently worked with the Minger Foundation, which works to raise awareness and standards of campus fire safety for all students, especially those with disabilities. We just finished a series of videos that focuses on fire safety for individuals with different disabilities. We also created a guide that gives instructors tools and tips on how to best present fire safety to students with disabilities.

And it's not just about educating students. I've talked to parents who have lost children in fires and it really opened my eyes. One father told me when they moved their daughter to college they were worried about getting her books and food but not about checking for working smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. So we're constantly working on ways to help parents educate their students.

You're currently preparing the department to seek national accreditation within the next few years. What does this involve?

This is one of the things I want to be able to accomplish during my time here. Becoming accredited will put our department up to a higher standard of performance. It keeps everybody constantly reaching for a goal and measuring our progress. So far in the process we've updated our standard operating guidelines and we've gone through training with the accrediting agency. The next step is for us to participate in a peer-review site visit, which will ready us for a site visit from another department.

There are only two fire departments in the state that are accredited. None of the campus fire departments in the country are accredited, so that's one of our incentives for working toward this goal.

What is something faculty, staff and students might not know about the PUFD?

We have 31 of the best and brightest emergency service people around, and they work for Purdue's students, faculty, staff and visitors. We are very fortunate to be able to provide our services free of charge so people on campus can worry first about their health and safety, not the costs.