Q&A: Former Battalion Chief Dan Kunita looks back on time with Evanston fire department

Marshall Cohen

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Battalion Chief Don Kunita retired last week from the Evanston fire department after more than 35 years of service. He took some time away from settling into retirement to talk to The Daily on Wednesday, reflecting on his career, technological advances over the years and incidents at Northwestern.

Daily: What was the Evanston fire department like when you started in 1976?

Kunita: It was the bicentennial year. Smoke detectors were just becoming popular and more affordable for the family home. People didn’t know how to deal with them; they were just getting used to them back then. There were still a lot of cigarette smokers in and around the firehouse – you’d find ash trays everywhere. Over the years there was a tremendous cultural change.

Daily: What is the most difficult experience you’ve had?

Kunita: You get into a house, and it is pitch black. It’s not like a Hollywood movie where you can see things. The smoke has darkened and it’s completely black. You can only go by your sense of limited touch because you have your gloves on. You can hear things and you can definitely feel temperature. But, remember, you’re completely encapsulated with your protective clothing and your self-contained breathing tank. What every firefighter is faced with is that you enter these conditions with limited senses. Visibility is nothing. You feel the heat, you see the glow of the fire, you realize where you’re at and the danger of it. You open the hose line, break out the windows and get the heat out of that house. That’s the experience of the extinguishment.

Daily: You had a close call fighting an apartment fire in 1996. What do you remember from that day?

Kunita: Stuff like that you don’t forget. I was lucky to survive. But there are others that have gone through very close conditions as well and never got recognition for that. It’s not all about me in situations like that. Those are things that firefighters always go through. Other firefighters get hurt along the way in their career. That’s something you never forget. We lost one in 1985 at a house fire. That was a terrible, terrible tragedy.

Daily: What was it like to respond to a house fire on the day of your retirement?

Kunita: It was just kind of odd and unique to go out and respond to a fire on my last day. There was also a fire, a pretty good-sized fire, on my second-to-last shift.

Daily: How has the technology changed the way you’ve done your job over the years?

Kunita: We have better communication now. Every firefighter is assigned a portable radio. When I arrived, it wasn’t that way. If you’re in a dangerous situation today, you can press a panic or emergency button and everyone can see that. You can’t miss the signal – it’s so annoying that everyone will hear it. If you were a firefighter without a portable radio and got separated, there could be a lapse in time before somebody realizes you’re in trouble.

Daily: Have you responded to many incidents at Northwestern over the years?

Kunita: Every now and then, either on campus or just off-campus, there have been incidents at fraternity houses and so forth that have had fires. We respond to not only fire calls but also hazardous material calls and emergency medical calls. There is always construction going on at the University, so accidents can happen at construction sites.

Daily: What was the relationship like between Evanston fire department and NU?

Kunita: President (Morton) Schapiro been so supportive of public safety. He saw to it that the University made efforts to help our fire service fleet. It’s always aging and needs equipment and updating. He’s been instrumental in helping that way with buying a fire truck and there’s an ambulance on the way, too. I’m glad the cooperation is there between the University and the city because that is really important.

Daily: What are your plans for retirement?

Kunita: I can now get a decent night’s sleep. We work 24-hour shifts, so you’re basically on call for 24 hours straight. You start feeling that, physically, so you always feel fatigued. Making that adjustment is going to feel great and it’s already feeling better. I have no intention to jump into any job market. I’ll have more time to do other things, like travel. I’ll visit relatives and travel around, and having the time to do it is a nice thing.

Daily: Any final reflections?

Kunita: It’s one of the best jobs in the world. I heard a quote some place that goes, “The best exercise of the human heart is to reach out and help somebody.” I always thought that was fitting for the fire service. From the very simple to the high-end emergency, that covers it all.