Female Fire Chief Blazing New Path in Huntington

Apr 25, 2017

Huntington has hired the first full time female fire chief in the state of West Virginia.

Credit City of Huntington Facebook

Jan Rader is the first woman in the state to lead a professional fire department. The one-time gemologist, who worked at a jewelry store in Washington, D.C. didn’t see this day coming.

Rader said one day while working in the Jewelry store, a woman had a heart attack and she couldn’t help. She said thankfully two women in the store were there and helped the woman. From there, Rader said her feelings on life changed and she wanted to help people.

“Like a light bulb went off in my head, first off I never want to feel helpless again,” Rader said.

This experience also showed Rader that women could be firemen too. After the woman had a heart attack the Fairfax County fire and rescue were called, and some of the workers were women. From there things changed.

“Within a couple of weeks I had taken a CPR class so I would know what to do and then I filled out an application to be a volunteer in Fairfax County to see if it would be something I’d like,” Rader said.

Which led her to take a test with the Huntington Fire Department closer to her hometown of Ironton, Ohio, just across the river from Huntington. And 22 years after working her way up the ladder, Rader is now the first paid female fire chief in West Virginia.

In the state there are 438 fire departments according to the West Virginia State Fire Marshal. Only 12 of those departments have full time chiefs, Huntington being one of them. Of the others, there are 12 female chiefs running volunteer departments.

“I’m stubborn enough that I’m certainly not going to allow anyone else to dictate what I will or will not do as far as career choice,” Rader said. “I didn’t sign up for the career to please anybody else, I did it because it’s really what I wanted to do.”

Rader said at one point there was one other woman who worked for the fire department, but since the late 90’s she’s been the only one.

Credit Clark Davis / WV Public Broadcasting

Rader was named interim chief in December when former Chief Carl Eastham retired. She was immediately thrusted into a budget crisis that involved the Fire Department. Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said it’s Rader’s leadership and ability to communicate that’s helped throughout the process. He said she has the qualities you want in a leader.

“Passion, compassion, she’s a teacher. She has an intellectual curiosity that doesn’t come natural to a lot of folks, she knows a little bit about everything and because of that she can just relate to them,” Williams said. “People are just naturally drawn to her.”

Rader also serves on the Office of Drug Control Policy in Huntington. She said she was led to that role by encountering the number of people she saw addicted to drugs during emergency calls with the fire department. One of the people she helped save is Mickey Watson. He overdosed twice; both times Rader saved his life. Watson said he owes his life and recovery to Rader and her commitment to help those dealing with addiction in the Huntington community.

“She’s the reason I’m sitting here,” Watson said. “She saved my life twice in a week because I chose to live a different life, I was strung out. She didn’t give up when I overdosed. By all rights I should be dead as long as I was out, I’ve seen the video and she wasn’t stopping till I was alive.”

Fellow fireman Charlie Shumaker said Rader is good for the department.

“She’s a very very competent leader, she’s a very good fire ground officer, she’s very safety conscious and wants to move this department forward in a very progressive manner and I think that’s a very positive step in the right direction for the city of Huntington fire department,” Shumaker said.

People like Mickey Watson say Rader can accomplish whatever she sets her mind too, and he’s a prime example of that.

“She is the perfect example of what a leader in our community should be,” Watson said.

Watson has been sober since November of 2015.

Rader said she doesn’t worry about the pressure of being the only woman- even though she has met some resistance

“You know what, they expect me to fail, so that’s beautiful,” Rader said. “Because if I fail, so what that’s what they expect, but if I succeed, then they’re never going to forget.”

Rader said she’ll serve in the role of Fire Chief for as long as Mayor Williams will have her.