Twenty-seven years ago, Ken Caudle was fresh out of the U.S. Army Special Forces and seeking a career that could re-create some of the excitement the military provided.
“I used to jump out of airplanes for a living,” Caudle said. “To come back to regular civilian life, it was like, ‘OK, now what do I do?’”
That line of thought brought Caudle into the firefighting service, a line of work that has suited him remarkably well. A self-described average high school student, Caudle excelled in his fire and EMT training.
Now 47, Caudle is in his fourth year as the chief of the Huntley Fire Protection District, an agency that serves 60,000 residents over 55 square miles.
Caudle started rising through the ranks of Huntley’s department quickly after he joined the agency 16 years ago.
“I noticed we would give him smaller projects and he’d do well on it,” former Huntley Fire Chief Jim Saletta said. “We started giving him bigger projects. He demonstrated good organizational and leadership skills, good planning – things that are chief material.”
Along with that, Saletta said he saw a work ethic that could match the demands of the chief’s position. When the agency was working to get its accreditation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, for example, Saletta often would wake up to email notifications that indicated Caudle had been working on the online application at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.
“He was working around the clock so we can have it done on time,” Saletta said.
Caudle went from firefighter to lieutenant to training safety director to captain to deputy chief before assuming his place as the district’s leader.
While working on the front lines, he honed his administrative skills, earning bachelor and master degrees in business management.
“Chief Saletta saw something in me I wasn’t really looking for,” Caudle said. “He brought it out of me, and here I am sitting in this seat.”
As chief, Caudle is responsible for making sure the district’s service meets the standard even as Huntley continues to expand.
The goal, he said, is to stay one step ahead. Caudle analyzes new development and commissions studies to make sure the department is financially prepared to build a new station or get new equipment if that need arises.
His quest to stay on the cutting edge leads to outside-the-box ideas. Last year, he offered subsidized FitBit activity trackers to encourage firefighters to stay in shape.
When the department received a SAFER Grant, which are generally used to expand staffing, he decided to use the money to allow part-time workers to earn some benefits, which he hopes will help the department maintain them.
“He’s done so much for that department, getting equipment via grants or government programs that have given him equipment,” said Marengo Fire Protection District Chief Bob Bradbury, who works with Caudle on the McHenry County Fire Chief’s Association.
Saletta, who now serves as a representative of the taxpayers on the district’s board of trustees, has been pleased by his leadership.
“Year after year he’s under budget,” Saletta said. “He completes projects on time. We set goals and objectives in December every year for the following year. He pretty much gets 90 percent done, and the ones he doesn’t are because of outside influence more than anything else.”
While he carries out the vision of the district, Caudle said he also occasionally joins his firefighters on calls, holding on to the part of the job that drew him to the fire service in the first place.
He also organizes meetings with residents of Sun City’s neighborhoods, arranges for firefighters to make appearances at block parties and other events, and works to make sure he stays connected with all the district’s firefighters.
Caudle has a lot on his plate, but those who have worked with him have no doubt about his ability to reach all his goals.
“Ken is a can-do guy,” Cary Fire Protection District Chief Jeffrey Macko said. “You’ve got a situation or a problem, he says, ‘I can get that done.’ And he does.”