Kelly Drayton’s career started in the fire department, which taught her valuable skills that she still uses to this day
By Sinclair Holian |Photography by John Michael Simpson
For Georgia native Kelly Drayton, an accomplished career in public service has an unconventional origin: “It all started with a dare.” Then a sophomore at Elon University, Kelly recalls the fortuitous moment a companion challenged her to join the fire service as they drove past the local station. Accepting the dare, Kelly walked right in and enlisted that day. During her two years as a volunteer, what started as a spur-of-the-moment joke transformed into a passion. “After my first house fire, I was just absolutely in love with it,” Kelly says. After graduating from Elon in 2010, she initially planned to pursue a doctorate in applied mathematics at NC State but switched gears after a year in the program to enter the fire academy at Durham Technical Community College. Upon graduating, she was accepted to the Chapel Hill Fire Department, where she worked for three years until she was hired in 2014 by the City of Raleigh’s Office of Emergency Management to build the department’s special event permitting and regulation division.
“It was a little bit of a difficult decision to leave the fire department, because I really did love it so much,” she says, “but the opportunity to be a part of a city as prominent as Raleigh and to be able to build an office from the ground up was just so exciting to me.” Kelly was later promoted to the role of emergency management coordinator, which she held until 2019, when an opportunity lured her back to Chapel Hill. She was hired as the town’s emergency management planner before being promoted to the director of emergency management in early 2020.
The position abruptly became “a baptism by fire” when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. Along with town leadership, Kelly was suddenly responsible for coordinating Chapel Hill’s COVID-19 response. In the chaos of ever-changing information, she became the go-between for policy and operations groups. “I have a very distinct memory of walking through the [Emergency Operations Center] door, and 15 people in the room all turn their heads,” she recalls. “And they’re all just looking at me like, ‘Whatever craziness you’re about to tell us, we’re ready.’
“A lot of the work is very challenging, but I really do think it is an incredible honor to serve your community, and I take that very seriously.“
“I don’t think anyone can say that they were truly prepared for that, regardless of how much experience you had in the job,” she says. “But there was just this incredible collaboration of everyone just coming together to say: ‘This is our unity of purpose, and we’re all gonna work together to come through this pandemic.’”
Kelly’s collaborative leadership style is just one of the skills she’s taken from her time in the fire service. After years in the public safety sector, she also knows the mental toll the work can take. “I’m not sure if people are aware that there really is a crisis in mental health with first responders,” she says. It’s a challenge she’s passionate about combating. Under the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, Kelly is the chair of the technical advisory committee providing collaboration and guidance for the new program, the North Carolina Responder Assistance Initiative. The unprecedented statewide program will “provide an integration of trained peer-support professionals, culturally competent clinical providers and access to consultative resources,” Kelly says.
“Fifteen years ago when I came through, the fact that mental health was an issue wasn’t even talked about,” she says, “so how far we’ve come is absolutely amazing.”