Smart Girl Stories

This Female Firefighter Lifts Up Women

In the male-dominated world of first responders, women like Jenn Panko have shattered the glass ceiling and paved the way for young women to join her in the exciting career of wildland firefighting. Her story is filled with empowering young women.

Panko is the founding board member of the non-profit organization NorCal Women In Fire Service, which has a mission to empower young women to pursue careers in fire service. The organization runs a yearly camp in addition to aiding departments increase their diversity.

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Panko was a three-sport athlete in high school and threw the javelin for the University of Colorado track team. Panko has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and an associate’s degree in fire science. She loves to spend time with her family and row on a competitive crew team that competes nationally and internationally.

Early career

After college, Panko was working in an office at a futures investment firm when she sat down one day to make a list of things she wanted out of a dream job. The list included characteristics like teamwork, helping people, working outside, and using her athletic talents. 

Panko realized that her dream job was working in public safety, and with the advice of a friend, she decided to move to California to be a firefighter. She joined a volunteer fire station at first, before pursuing the career in earnest.

After attending the fire academy and achieving her EMT certification, Panko tested at many fire departments, and was eventually hired by the Santa Clara Fire Department in 1997. 

She worked hard and rose through the department’s ranks, becoming a driver engineer, a captain, assistant chief, and is now the department’s Battalion Chief. Panko spent 10 years as a truck company officer specializing in technical rescues. 

Additionally, she leads the department’s EMS Division, helping the department become a leader in ambulance transport services, and serves as the Designated Infection Control Officer as well. 

Panko has also served as the department’s Peer Support Team Lead and Wellness Program Coordinator. She launched the department’s Behavioral Health Program in 2016 to help improve wellness among employees in the department, and added annual Life Scan Wellness evaluations for all sworn personnel. 

Panko led an effort within the department to find barriers to diversifying demographics within its ranks, which resulted in more applicants across five under-represented demographics. 

Panko Strives In Empowering Young Women

Although Panko did not think about things like gender or ethnicity early in her career, as she learned more about her diverse community, she realized that she wanted to make firefighting more inclusive. 

“It became evident how important it is as a public servant to understand and relate to the demographics of the community you are serving,” Panko said.

Firefighting is a heavily male-dominated industry, and women don’t often grow up with female firefighter role models, Panko believed.

According to Panko, women only represent 4% of fire service field operation positions nationwide — the lowest female representation in any profession, including law enforcement and the military. 

Many factors led women not to pursue careers in fire service, including a lack of role models in the industry, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Panko decided that she wanted to do something about it.

In 2018, she founded the NorCal Women In Fire Service to break that cycle. The organization has two purposes: to introduce young women to non-traditional careers, and to support women working in fire service.

The organization hosts the NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp for local teenagers in Santa Clara. They partner with local fire agencies and community colleges to host a two-day camp where young girls see multiple aspects of firefighting up close, and get hands-on experience. Girls pull hose lines, wear turnout gear and learn how to use breathing apparatuses, climb ladders, learn CPR, and use firefighting tools like the “jaws of life” to cut open car doors.

At the end of the camp, the girls — who have been taught by female firefighters — graduate with newfound confidence and a new skillset. 


NorCal WFS has hosted eight fire camps since 2018, with departments from all over California coming together to help. Some departments even come from other states. Most of the camps have had around 60 high school campers in attendance, and around 100 female and non-binary firefighters who help staff the camp. 

“The most amazing part about camp is watching the group of 60 young campers show up on Day One, maybe nervous, insecure and intimidated, and then see them graduate on Day 2 with a new sense of confidence, empowerment and excitement about the possibilities that lay ahead for them,” Panko said.

The next NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp will be hosted at Mission College in Santa Clara, California, September 28 and 29 which goes a long way towards empowering young women. Registration will open sometime in August. 

More info is available at

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Emily Holshouser

Hi, Smart Girls! Emily is a journalist based in Los Angeles, California, currently covering crime & public safety for Southern California News Group.


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