“Why isn’t she a chief?” Santa Clara Fire Department (SCFD) Chief Ruben Torres said to himself while talking with SCFD Administration Division Chief Officer Jenn Panko about her career path. “She’s an amazing person. She’s dedicated 25 years of her life to the community of Santa Clara. It’s time.”
In May, Panko became SCFD’s first female battalion chief. Hired as an SCFD firefighter in November of 1997, Battalion Chief Panko now heads the Emergency Medical Services Division, which provides pre-hospital emergency medical care to the city and county.
Panko, born in Boston, Mass., and raised in Colorado, didn’t grow up wanting to be a firefighter. After graduating from the University of Colorado with a B.A. Degree in Anthropology, she ended up in a dull office job.
“While sitting at my desk one day, daydreaming of other options, I made a list of all the qualities I wanted out of a career,” said Panko. “Once I saw the list on paper—team-oriented, helping people, physically challenging, adventurous, unpredictable, it became clear that I should investigate a career in law enforcement, medical care or firefighting.”
As chance would have it, a co-worker’s friend was pursuing a career in firefighting.
“I liked the sound of the physical challenge and doing something that could help people in an emergency setting,” said Panko, who is 5-foot-11-inches tall and has participated in team sports all her life.
Being a woman didn’t deter her from pursuing what was—and still is—considered a man’s profession.
“After my first visit to a fire station [in Mill Valley] as a volunteer, I was hooked!” she said.
She attended the Firefighter Academy at Santa Rosa Junior College and received Emergency Medical Training certification. Then she began an almost year-long process of applying and testing for openings at ten fire departments. Out of about 1,200 applicants, she was one of six finalists hired by SCFD.
Panko progressed through the ranks, including serving as a driver engineer, fire captain and Acting Battalion Chief of Field Operations. As Chief Officer of Administration, she helped manage a $61 million budget.
She is Recruitment Team Leader and Behavioral Health & Wellness Program Coordinator. She founded the nonprofit NorCal Women in the Fire Service, which introduces high school girls to firefighting careers.
In 2018, Panko earned an A.S. Degree in Fire Science from Mission College.
“We are fortunate to have a community college with a fire science program right here in Santa Clara. It is a great preparatory school for future firefighters and a great resource for continuing education for current firefighters,” she said.
Panko said that nationwide, about four percent of firefighters are women. In Santa Clara, eight of about 117 firefighters are women.
“The challenge is in recruiting women and putting this career on their radar,” said Panko.
“Since the fire service is about helping people in a time of need, traits that become assets are empathy, compassion, helpfulness, good communication skills, teamwork, ability for self-sacrifice, proactive problem-solving, physical fortitude and agility,” she said. “The traits that make someone well-suited for this career are unrelated to gender.”
Panko said that being a firefighter is more than the overt heroism depicted on TV and in movies—dramatically rescuing people from burning buildings. Rather, small services of subtle heroism make up the bulk of a firefighter’s career: gently picking someone’s grandmother up off the floor after she fell out of bed; teaching children home fire safety.
Panko stays fit as captain of the Marin Rowing Association Advanced Master Women’s Team. In July, the team won two gold medals in the Henley Master’s Regatta in Great Britain.
She and her husband enjoy traveling—last fall to Croatia and Greece. Most of their immediate families (Panko has a sister and a brother) live in the Bay Area.
“I am specifically honored to be the first woman to become a chief officer for our department. Hopefully, it will help inspire more women to consider the same,” said Battalion Chief Panko. “I have benefited throughout my career by the mentorship of many strong leaders that I have had the pleasure to work with—almost all of them men.”
“It was both inspiring and an honor to promote Jenn Panko to Battalion Chief,” said Chief Torres. “The fire service continues to evolve to better understand that it is important to have diversity at all levels of the organization. We provide a higher level of service when we’re more diverse.”