EMS Training Captain Jen Román retires from the Madison Fire Department this week, celebrating a career driven by passion for emergency medical service and a desire to build a better future for women in the protective services.Román took the oath to become a commissioned firefighter in August 1998, but she says her lifelong devotion to public service actually began with a different oath— that of the Girl Scouts.
“I always say that Girl Scouts quite literally got me the job,” she said, explaining that she was put on the spot during her job interview with then-Fire Chief Debra Amesqua, who asked her to recite the Girl Scouts Promise and Law.
Prior to joining the MFD, Román worked at United Way placing volunteers in the community and educating stakeholders about the organization. Her career path took a profound turn when she witnessed a fatal car crash while on vacation in Arizona.
“I watched a man die that day and I had no idea what to do,” Román remembers. “I decided I would never — never — be put in that position again.”
Román went on to pursue EMT training and eventually became an EMT instructor at Madison College. She enrolled in paramedic school at the encouragement of her colleagues who saw in her a knack for EMS. She later applied to the Madison Fire Department, the only area department at the time that employed paramedics.
Upon graduating the MFD recruit academy, Román’s first assignment was as a firefighter at Station 6 on W. Badger Road. She continued to serve there when the department activated her paramedic license a year later, and it was the station where she began her tenure as a fire lieutenant. Station 6 still holds a special place in her heart.
“I loved the crews I worked with there. Really amazing people,” she said. “I also loved the territory for its diversity of people and geography. It’s just a really interesting part of the city.”
As a lieutenant, Román also “roved,” serving at different stations each shift, which helped her get to know and learn from so many people on the department.
“The Madison Fire Department has remarkable people. [Roving] just proved it over and over and over again,” she said. “And it was fun!”
Román spent several years as a training officer at the recruit academy, where she taught both fire and EMS academies for several classes. After her appointment to EMS Training Captain in 2014, she continued to teach EMS academies for nearly every recruit class up until her retirement, leaving an indelible mark on the department’s service to the City, where EMS calls comprise approximately 70% of all calls for service.
Throughout her tenure, Román remained keenly aware of the statistical lack of women in the fire service. Nationally, only 4% of professional firefighters are women*. 11% of Madison Fire Department commissioned personnel are women. Román says societal cultural norms are among the reasons for the disparity.
“Growing up, my best friend’s dad was a member of the town’s fire department and eventually became Fire Chief. He never took us down to the fire station, only the boys,” Román said. “I had no idea this was an opportunity. I never saw a woman on a fire truck until I came to Madison Fire.”
Román set out to change that. After many conversations with other women in Fire, EMS, and policing, and with support from key organizational stakeholders including the Madison Fire and Police Departments, CampHERO was born. The annual summer camp, which introduces girls to the protective services, offers career exploration opportunities in fire, EMS, and policing through age-appropriate hands-on activities.
As the program enters its eleventh year, Román (whose camp name is “Yoda”) is beginning to see the fruits of her labor. A number of former campers have gone on to become police officers, paramedics, and one recently began working for the National Fire Service in Montana.
Finding community around a shared cause has been a hallmark of Román’s career. In 2019, she helped co-found IGNITE: Women Of the Madison Fire Department, a non-profit organization that mentors, recruits, educates, and supports the women of the Madison Fire Department and surrounding communities.
Meanwhile, Román continued to strive to make the workplace more welcoming and equitable for women on the job. Among her proudest achievements was her role in developing the City’s “Non-Hazardous Duty” and “Lactation After Return to Active Duty” policies, which took effect in 2019. Among other things, the policies allow pregnant women—as well as women and men planning to conceive—to seek temporary reassignment from frontline duties that would otherwise expose them to hazardous environments and conditions. It further guarantees a safe and private place for women to express and store milk upon returning to active duty after childbirth.
“Prior to this, pregnancy was considered either an illness or an injury, and it was treated as such,” Román explained. “When a person got pregnant, it set them back sometimes in seniority, in pay, in vacation earnings, all that stuff.”
As a result, women were disproportionately affected by the decision to have children. The new policies allow employees to seek a separate job classification without sacrificing wages, benefits, and seniority.
As she prepares to pass the baton to the next generation, Román imparts this simple advice to all youth who might consider a career in the protective services: Be good! She says the fire service and EMS depend on proficiency in every subject, from language to mathematics. Emotional intelligence, mental health and wellness, and physical fitness are also key. Just as importantly, Román adds, “You’ve got to be good at being a friend.”
To girls and women who never considered this career path a possibility: “Always keep your mind open, even when you’re scared, even when it feels like there are barriers all around you. Don’t let that stop you from doing what you want.”
*according to the latest data from the NFPA’s “U.S. Fire Department Profile” report.