‘Why is the chief’s wife driving around in the chief’s car?’: Meet Fire Chief Judy Thill
A third-generation firefighter’s story of finding her passion in a male-dominated industry
By Barry Haire
Judy Thill grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a home with a fire phone, directly across the street from a fire station. If someone had a fire, they pushed a button that would ring the fire whistle.
One day when she was 6 years old, she rode with her father to a house fire, as he was on call and unable to find a babysitter. She vividly remembers riding to the scene in the family car, then being placed in the cab from where she watched the fire.
These moments helped create a strong connection between father and daughter – and Thill longed to be like her dad.
“My dad taught me how to play softball,” she recalls. “The only girls sport we had at high school was basketball and I sucked at that. I also joined an adult softball league at the age of 12. That’s the only sport I could play. My dad was a civil engineer and I was trying to follow his example, so I enrolled at Penn State to pursue a degree in civil engineering, but I did not like the class size or the civil engineering classes.”
Into the working world
Thill began working construction with the idea of becoming a civil engineer. Her dad worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and got her summer jobs working on road construction crews.
“I was told how to dress and was not allowed to wear a tank top or shorts,” she shares. “I had to wear jeans at all times. I learned quickly to have a sense of humor. Most of the time, you learn to go with the flow.”
Thill left Penn State and graduated from a smaller college closer to home with a degree in mine safety management. She accepted her first job in surface mining safety and went on to work at several other companies as a safety manager.
In 1987, Northwest Airlines hired her as safety manager where she stayed for nine years. This gave her the chance to work in fire prevention.
“When they hired me on as safety manager, they doubled their staff,” she says. “It worked out as a nice career for me. The only problem with the airline is you are either a lifer or you’re not. I had a region to cover, which included the Twin Cities, the Northwest and Hawaii. My first year, I flew 80,000 miles. That is a lot of miles.”
Working for the airlines gave Thill a wonderful learning experience dealing with corporate safety and the different pieces of health and safety. She believes the best thing about her time in the airline industry is that it introduced her to training.
Joining the fire service – and moving up the ranks
Fulfilling Thill’s fire prevention and training duties with Northwest created a curiosity within her that could only be satisfied by joining a local fire department. So in 1989, she began working with the city of Eagan in her first position as a paid on-call firefighter.
“I started dabbling in training between the full-time job at Northwest and Eagan Fire Department, which caused my interest in training to grow considerably,” she says.
After serving 16 years as a firefighter, Thill was promoted to paid on-call lieutenant.
When a full-time captain/fire operations officer position opened at the Maple Grove Fire-Rescue Department – a position that involved coordinating truck maintenance, training and all operations – she made the move, leaving Northwest. She ultimately served as a full-time deputy chief with Maple Grove, and in 2007, she accepted a job with Inver Grove Heights Fire Department as their first full-time fire chief.
Memories of significant incidents
The biggest career fire for Thill occurred in 2010 when a century-old swing bridge that crosses the Mississippi river caught fire. The historic landmark was undergoing renovation when heat from a torch ignited the dry creosote timber. Due to the bridge’s asphalt surface and the 25-mph winds, crews fought the fire underneath the bridge using boats.
“I had been on the department for a few years and can still remember sitting in my office when we received the page for a swing bridge fire,” she recalls. “Jeff Schadegg, the fire marshal at time was a few doors down. I said, ‘Did you hear that?’ Did they say swing bridge fire?’ ‘You want me to go with?’ he answered. We both thought the same thing: It is just a piece of equipment on fire.”
As Thill pulled out from the fire station and drove toward the river, the heavy black smoke came into view.
“Oh sh*t,” she said to herself. She started calling mutual aid and requesting as many boats as they could get. In the end, they were able to save the steel structure, but the wood portion of the bridge was a total loss.
Another memory that stands out in her career is the time she answered the call to an apartment fire as a paid on-call firefighter/EMT. A mother and her two children, an 18-month-old boy and 3-year-old girl, were rescued from their burning apartment. The boy passed away from injuries sustained after playing with a lighter and igniting a couch.
Thill was directed to the girl and breathed a few breaths into her – and she began breathing.
“Sometimes not everything shuts down and when you give them a couple of breaths, they begin breathing on their own,” she explains.
The death of a child is especially difficult to process. Such tragedy often brings questions from others about how she processes such events. She says she tries not to process in individual details, but that for her, it is a matter of processing the overall scene.
However, many firefighters will admit that their job is not just about their own individual life-saving acts. It is also about teamwork.
Thill witnessed this teamwork right before she left Maple Grove fire department.
A floor under construction at the Great River Energy building collapsed, trapping someone beneath. As she walked around the back of the building, Thill noticed a void space and a stepladder nearby. Minneapolis Fire Department was called for a collapse rescue.
“I had the opportunity to work with them, to watch them put their plan together and go in, not knowing exactly how stable it really was,” she describes. “They stabilized the victim and rescued him from the collapse. It is difficult to describe and very humbling to see such expertise in action.”
A positive attitude
As a third-generation volunteer firefighter, Thill’s view of fire service is shaped by the memories of being at the fire station with her father. She thinks many people do not realize that often it is the volunteer, non-career firefighters who pull out the burned and mangled bodies.
“This is the thing that hits me,” she explains. “I care for these firefighters. They are my family. Knowing how much they do, what they have to deal with, and sometimes how little recognition they get … it is frustrating for me and the main reason I joined the National Volunteer Fire Council.”
One of the things that has helped Thill succeed in fire service is a positive attitude. She prefers to focus on the good rather than the bad and to remember that the fire service has given her a huge family, a career and so many good things. It also helps to have a sense of humor.
This came in handy one day when Thill first became fire chief at Inver Grove Heights. Her boss received a call asking why the fire chief’s wife was driving around in the chief’s car. Thill laughs when recalling that one.
Thill currently serves as fire chief for the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department.
About the Author
Barry Haire has a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in journalism. He began his career with 15 years in sales and marketing, including seven years in publishing as a project director. During his work as a publisher, Haire had the privilege of interviewing firefighters and paramedics for a project. He currently works in integrated advertising sales and volunteers as a grant researcher and writer with Taproot.