women of the Class of 1980
Back (L-R): Rory Ward, Bev Buhr, Denise Sullivan, Laura Smith
Front (L-R): Jan Jefferson, Pam Jacobson, Marcia Holtz
Not pictured: Mary Freitag

Forty years ago today, history was made at the Madison Fire Department. Eight women graduated the Fire Academy, becoming the first women ever to serve on the MFD. 

The journey to graduation day was not easy, and it actually began two years earlier, when Mary Freitag and Marcia Holtz applied to be firefighters in 1978. Three weeks into the Academy, they and two other recruits were fired without notice. Their termination led to a discrimination lawsuit in federal court. The court case was eventually resolved by settlement, and it was required that the three recruits who filed the lawsuit be offered a position in the next class. 

By then, there was a new fire chief in town named Ed Durkin. In hiring the Class of 1980, Durkin brought together a diverse group of recruits made up of white men, men of color (seven African American men and one Latino man), and women. Joining Freitag and Holtz were Beverly Buhr, Pam Jacobson, Jan Jefferson, Laura Smith, Denise Sullivan, and Rory Ward. 

Forty years later, 43 commissioned women serve on the Madison Fire Department in ranks ranging from rookie firefighter to Assistant Fire Chief. At just over 11% of its commissioned workforce being women, Madison is a leader in the nation in employing women firefighters. The national average is just 3%.

On the anniversary of this historic milestone, some of our active members took a moment to reflect on what it means to be here and how it was all made possible by the courageous women in the Class of 1980. See below...

collage of active women at MFD

Lisa Becher, Lieutenant/Paramedic:
A sincere thank you to the Class of 1980 for leading the way for women on the Madison Fire Department and throughout the nation. Each one of you has been an inspiration to me. I am very proud to be a part of a diverse fire department, and it all began with YOU!

Bree Bower, Firefighter/EMT:
Because of you trendsetting women, I get to come to work and do this job that I love. I am humbled and honored to follow in the footsteps of such courageous individuals.

Meredith Brezinski, Firefighter/EMT:
Becoming a firefighter wasn’t about proving to someone else that I could do it. It was proving to myself that I could do it— and do it well. I am working on that every day. I found something that I feel passionately about and am able to continue serving my community in a way that only a few years I ago I hadn’t even imagined. I have met some of the most selfless and wonderful people that I am lucky enough to call coworkers. I look forward to my shifts and am excited to come in to work. Without the first women to have paved the way, who dared to dream bigger and work harder to prove themselves, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. Thank you to each of the women of the Class of 1980 who took the chance and opened the door to future dreamers!

Tracy Burrus, Assistant Chief of Personnel:
I have fight in me, but I didn’t want to have to fight from scratch. I wanted to be at Madison Fire where it was evident by the number of women on the department that people had already fought. There will always be something to fight for no matter where you are, and we have to be willing to do our part. I appreciate the women who fought to make this a department a place where I could land— not have to fight daily just to be a firefighter— and have a great career.

Marta Darrow, Firefighter/Paramedic:
Thank you for all your hard work and dedication as you have paved a road for us to continue to serve the Madison community with honor and pride!

Amanda Engelhart, Firefighter/Paramedic:
Thank you Class of 1980. You have paved the way for us women today, and we hope to continue the way for more women to come. We appreciate everything that you have accomplished!

Laura Graf, Firefighter/EMT:
I would like to extend my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the women who came before us. I recognize the courage and strength it took to endure and persist in an often hostile environment. Thank you for blocking the way so our path would be easier.

Julie Griessmeyer, Firefighter/EMT:
Thanks for forging the path for women in the fire service. Growing up, it was always the boys who said they wanted to be firefighters, not the girls. Girls were expected to be nurses, teachers, or stay-at-home moms.  Because of your courage to do a "man’s job," my four-year-old daughters and her friends are not afraid to say "I want to be a fire woman when I grow up."  Thank you for your bravery, leadership, and strength.

Tami Heilberger, Firefighter/Paramedic:
Women of the Class of 1980: You didn’t just blaze a trail, but you burned the damn door down for all of us that followed. Thank you for your tenacity, strength, and courage. Because of women like you, little girls can dream of being a firefighter someday.

Lori Karst, Apparatus Engineer/EMT:
The demands of a professional firefighter are great. I specifically chose the Madison Fire Department because the women who came before me had already begun to weave a strong fabric within the fire department family, making it easier for me. Thank you, Class of 1980 pioneer women!!!

Natashia Kirch, Firefighter/EMT:
Thank you to the strong women who forged the fires before us. Your legacy lives on in the present and the future women of MFD.

Brianna Kruchten, Firefighter/EMT:
Thank you to the women in the Class of 1980 for helping pave the way and showing us what is possible!!

Kara Nelson, Apparatus Engineer/Fire Investigator:
To the Class of 1980: Because of your collective courage, you have created opportunity for generations of women to have the ability to serve their community. The women of the Madison Fire Department thank you, as does society. Strong work. 

Jen Román, Captain of EMS Training:
To the women who came before me - You made a path where there was none before. You did what many thought was impossible and I am forever grateful to you, the trailblazers.
To the women who grew up with me - We did it! We widened the trail, and made it easier and safer to trek. While it is still winding, uneven and riddled with weeds, it can be clearly seen and followed by anyone who chooses.
To the women who are early in their career - It’s your turn. Level it! Straighten it! Light it up! Heck! You could even pave it!   
To the girls who will follow all of us - This is our gift to you. It is yours to make beautiful, easy to follow and accessible to all. We will all be waiting to greet you on the other end. Enjoy the journey!

Liza Tatar, Division Chief of Hiring & Promotions:
Thank you Class of 1980 for leaving a path of wisdom and experience from which the women and men of this department have benefited. You are strong and positive representatives of our profession.


This content is free for use with credit to the City of Madison - Fire and a link back to the original post.