WILMETTE’S LONE FEMALE FIREFIGHTER
Imagine a job where you were dropped through a hole in the ice into water so murky you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. Every tree branch you bump into sends your heart racing, expecting it to be the body you’ve been instructed to find. And no matter how confident you are in the job you’ve been given, you find yourself cold and scared and not sure what to do next….except sing.
“People always ask me how I do it and I tell them I sing to myself,” explains Jennifer Bazan, a member of the Wilmette Fire Department’s Underwater Rescue Team since 2006. “It really helps to calm your nerves.”
Calming her nerves and the nerves of others has been a pre-requisite for the job for Ms. Bazan, who became the first female firefighter at the Wilmette Fire Department over 13 years ago. “I’m sure they kept me on days for three weeks because they didn’t know how nights would go,” chuckles Ms. Bazan, recalling the first time she worked the overnight shift with her male colleagues. “A bunch of new policies went into place once I came on the force. I couldn’t help but notice guys would always go to bed before me.”
A unique situation for sure, but far from something the 46 year old hasn’t been bred to handle. Born and raised in Barrington, Ms. Bazan is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie who’s been known to stray from the status quo procedures so many have taken before her. In fact, she rarely sticks to game plans.
Before firefighting caught her eye and heart, Ms. Bazan originally pursued a career with animals. Growing up riding horses, she took to swimming with dolphins during a five-year stint at the Shedd Aquarium. “I’ve always had a real love for animals,” she says. “I really thought that would be the direction I’d go in.”
And while that love for animals would lead her to jobs in Hawaii and Oregon, it was a random car accident that sent her back to the Chicago area in the late ‘90s to a love she never could have imagined. “I was ready to make a change,” recalls Ms. Bazan. “And as I was in my car thinking about it, I came across a terrible accident right when the helicopter was landing to transport the patients. I knew at that moment I wanted to be a paramedic.”
After a close friend talked her out of the paramedic field, becoming a firefighter seemed much more intriguing to Ms. Bazan. She began training and walking into testing sessions alongside thousands of people with more experience than her. Yet, she had a way of turning heads. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew what I wanted,” explains Ms. Bazan, who also now serves as a lieutenant for the McHenry Township Fire Protection District.
Yet, noticeable doubts from co-workers were hard to ignore. “There were people in the beginning that refused to speak to me,” she says. “There was a lot of trepidation and I understood it. Having a female going out on calls was a totally new experience. Firefighting is a difficult job, and there’s always that question as to whether or not a woman can do it as well.”
Currently working the ‘on 24, off 48’ shift, Ms. Bazan has more than earned her share of respect from her fellow firefighters after years of impressive work within the fire department and Underwater Rescue Team. “I was certified [as a scuba diver] in college at Eastern Illinois University during a course taught by an ex Navy Seal,” explains Ms. Bazan, who also serves on the Underwater Rescue Team in McHenry. “I went through additional training to become a public safety rescue diver, but I’ve unfortunately only been on recoveries. Rescues are rare due to the time it takes to deploy divers.”
Indeed, whether down in the water or up a few stories in the air, she remains a woman with undeniable emotions at her core. “I’m the one who tears up during commercials,” she laughs. “So yes, the emotion of the job can get to me sometimes. As trained firefighters, we live for the fire. But at the same time, we sometimes watch people lose everything. In the moment, I’m a driven and focused individual. But later on, it will hit me. It always does.”
Luckily, Ms. Bazan can turn to her support system, which includes a boyfriend of six years who knows exactly where she’s coming from. “As a fellow firefighter for Morton Grove, he knows what it’s like to live the life of a firefighter,” she says. “We completely understand and support each other through it all.”
And then…there are her horses. “The horses are a huge part of my life and the reason I work as much as I do,” she says. “I participate in three-day eventing competitions all over the country, and I hope to begin competing internationally very soon. I’m lucky to have a passion for my job and my pastimes.”