By BROOKE GRIFFIN
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Jan Rader is no average woman. She is the Huntington fire chief. She is the star of a Netflix documentary. She can rescue someone from a burning building and then administer certified professional medical treatment. She is paving the way for young girls looking to do big things that might think they can’t because they are a girl. Rader is here to show them they are wrong, and she is just right down the street.
Rader is an Ironton, Ohio native who spent some time studying at Marshall University until she moved to Santa Monica, California to attend a six-month program at a gemology school. Following her time in Santa Monica, Rader moved to Fairfax county, an area right outside of Washington D.C., to work as a jeweler. For the next eight years, she would work at a jewelry store right outside of Tyson Corner Center and be an assistant manager for five years in the same store.
Little did Rader know, she would soon look out the same doorway of her store one day and see the world a little differently.
“I watched a lady turn blue and collapse,” Rader said. “She had a heart attack right in the doorway of my store.”
Luckily, the woman was given CPR by a passerby and an EMS arrived in time to assist her, but that didn’t let Rader shake the feeling that she was meant for something more.
“I felt pretty helpless,” Rader said. “I didn’t even know CPR at the time, so I had to just stand there and watch this woman suffer.”
That was the turning point in Rader’s life. She said she started looking into the possibility of being a firefighter or work in Emergency Medical Services. Being a woman firefighter was mostly unheard of in the mid-90’s, but she never ruled it out.
After enrolling in a CPR class and a EMT basic class, she decided that still just wasn’t enough. She started asking some of her friends from a running group if they thought she could be a firefighter. Rader said they were quick to say “yes.”
“They said ‘Oh yeah you would be great at it. We have a lot of women firefighters. You don’t have to be big, you just have to be in shape,’ and they were right,” Rader said.
After some time training and studying, she took the three-part firefighting test for Fairfax County, Virginia, and after some convincing from her brother, she also applied for the open position in Huntington.
“Huntington called me before Fairfax County did, so I moved home,” Rader said. “I wanted to be closer to my family anyway. It was a big deal being a woman here versus there. About 15 percent of the firefighters are women there (Virginia), but here that was not the case.”
Working as the only official female firefighter in Huntington, one would think she had more than enough challenges on her plate. She said she did not see it that way.
Now having not only firefighting as a career under her belt, she decided to use her off time to go on calls with Ceredo EMS as a paramedic and instruct EMS and fire courses.
“I thought, once I finish my career as a fire fighter, I don’t want to ride in the back of that ambulance in my fifties,” Rader said. “So, I thought, well, I had better do something else.”
When she had conquered her other side jobs, she decided it was time to attend nursing school; she graduated with her degree in 2008. For the following eight years, she worked as an ER nurse at Cabell-Huntington Hospital on her days off.
“I miss nursing,” Rader said. “I did love it.”
Firefighting eventually did consume her life again, which led to her current title.
On April 12, 2017, Rader was sworn in as the fire chief of Huntington. She had been interim fire chief for several months when Huntington Mayor Steve Williams decided to make the title official.
She hasn’t missed a beat since the day she was appointed, and has picked up a few interesting meet and greets and a role in a documentary along the way.
“I never dreamed (that I would be in a documentary), but I never thought I would be fire chief either,” Rader said. “You just do the right thing, do what’s best and just see how it all shakes out, I guess.”
The “Heroin(e)” documentary was released on Netflix in September, and Rader said that since that Tuesday, she has been getting emails from all over the world with people thanking her for what she and the other two powerful women profiled in the film. She said that during the short period of filming, she never acted any differently or did anything she normally wouldn’t have.
“We try to just do our job,” Rader said. “We try to be non-judgmental, because I want people to be treated like I would want my family treated, with respect and dignity. I don’t know their backstory. I took an oath to save lives and property. Nowhere in there does it say I have a right to judge.”
Former President Barack Obama was so impressed by the film that he invited her, her co-stars and the film’s creator to attend a discussion panel at the Inaugural Obama Foundation Summit.
“It put me on cloud nine for a while; my knees were weak for about an hour after I hugged him,” Rader said.
With a large portion of the initial excitement winding down after her historical swearing-in and life-changing documentary, many wonder what she is looking to do next.
“I want more help for first responders in the next few years,” Rader said. “My guys go through a lot, and I want them to have everything they need. I hope to see us, as a society, be kinder to each other when it comes to the epidemic. I want a community that can band together to rise above the epidemic and beat this.”
Rader is known for shattering glass ceilings since the early ’90s, and doesn’t seem like she is going to slow down anytime soon. Next time you see Rader rescuing cats out of trees, keeping watch over her guys while at a devastating fire or saving another life from the strangling grip of drugs or heroin, ask her her story.
She won’t brag and won’t talk about how much she has accomplished, but there is much to be learned.
Brooke Griffin can be contacted at [email protected].
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