As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our daily lives, first responders across the nation fight the virus on the front lines to keep the rest of us safe at home.

Pro-West would like to recognize one of our own, Chelsea Utzerath.

Chelsea was a Senior GIS Technician at Pro-West before leaving to pursue a career in firefighting in 2018. We appreciate Chelsea and her colleagues for their dedication to their communities during the toughest of times.

How long were you with Pro-West?

I spent 10 great years with Pro-West. I started within three weeks of graduating from Bemidji State University (Bemidji, MN) in 2008. I worked in the Walker office for six years and then spent another four years working from home in Madison, WI where I was closer to family.

Describe your role at Pro-West

I was hired as a parcel mapper and over the years was able to pick up other projects ranging from E911 addressing to converting data to the Parcel Fabric to training clients on using GIS software to keep their data up-to-date.

How did you get into GIS? What attracted you?

I’ve always loved maps! Growing up I would pull out the atlas on family road trips and study it. In high school my dream was to go to school for meteorology, but playing volleyball was also a high priority. Bemidji State University gave me the opportunity to play volleyball but it didn’t have a meteorology program. Geography was the next best thing! BSU offered a handful of emphases and GIS seemed like the right fit. At the time, GIS still seemed new and many people didn’t know what it was. I liked the idea of becoming educated in something that was unusual. The program didn’t have many women and I was proud to be one of them.

What inspired you to become a firefighter? How did you decide the time was right to make the move?

My brother-in-law, who is a police officer in Madison, actually mentioned it to me, including the great schedule and the fact they like to hire women. The Fire Department’s hiring process only happens every two years and is very competitive, but it had a progressive approach to hiring women and individuals with no prior fire experience. I felt I had an advantage by being local, physically fit and having some life experience but, with 2,000 other people applying, I knew my chances were still slim. I had a great job with Pro-West and I had nothing to lose by applying.

The process itself took almost a year. I had made a lot of connections with other fire department personnel who guided me along the way. With each interview and test I passed, I got more and more excited about the opportunity to serve my city, which signaled to me that I was making the right choice to change careers.

Describe the process of becoming a firefighter. What was training like? How long did the process take?

The application took about 10 months which included a written test, 3 interviews, a physical test, a medical check and a background check. Those 10 months gave me time to attend workshops specifically for women interested in the fire service. I grew to love the challenges that I knew were ahead of me and the people I was meeting along the way.

My fire academy was four grueling months of fire-specific training with 12 other classmates, nine of whom had some kind of previous fire department training, schooling or certifications, followed by two more months of EMT training (all City of Madison firefighters are also EMTs) for myself and four classmates that weren’t EMT-certified. We joined the field in station life in March 2019.

The academy was nothing that I ever could have imagined. It was more mentally and emotionally challenging than physical for me. I began with no knowledge so I had to study every night after academy after coming home exhausted and feeling physically beat-up. We had written tests every week along with physical fire skills that we had to “master” in order to graduate. You learn to rely on your classmates and create a special bond that we will have through our whole careers.

What do you like about being a firefighter? Has it lived up to expectations? Anything you didn’t expect?

Helping the community is definitely the best part of the job. We are thanked every day at the grocery store and on many of our calls. It’s great to hear those “thank you”s but we all signed up for the job. We’re happy we’re able to help our communities.

Being a firefighter has lived up to my expectations. I have met so many wonderful, like-minded people. The job has its challenges, like continuing education and staying as physically fit as possible. The satisfaction of helping people on their worst days, even if it’s just holding their hand and providing emotional support, cannot be beat.

The one thing I didn’t expect is adjusting to living with my coworkers for 24 hours at a time! As a brand new firefighter I am getting used to the traditions that go with the role, one of which is being part of a family with a “brother and sisterhood”.

What’s the most challenging part of being a firefighter?

Changing careers and starting at the bottom in a career where tradition and seniority are everything. Madison Fire Department has hired people ranging from age 18 to 45 and it is difficult to “start over” after a previous 10-year career. I have embraced being the “rookie” and taking on extra duties around the fire stations and on calls, but it all keeps me busy.

How does it compare to working as a GIS Technician?!

There are many similarities! At Pro-West, we took pride in our work and clients and I learned the value of that right out of college. That mindset carried over to the fire service. Although there is plenty of down time during a 24-hour shift, when we are called to help, we are all 100% in. We have daily training and are expected to work out and continue our education as much as possible when on duty.

I was passionate about my job at Pro-West and valued being part of a team that never let each other down. Now, I serve my city in the same way as a firefighter and EMT.

How has your role changed since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have you adjusted and how do you expect it to evolve?

As a department, we have to take extra precautions on medical calls, which is 85% of what we do. We have extra personal protective equipment (PPE) that we are required to put on for every call now. Even station life has changed. We deep clean every morning – door knobs, computers, kitchen cabinet handles, phones, etc. We try to keep distance among the crew, but we’re cooking, eating and training together so it can be difficult. Having to take those extra steps before helping the patient can become exhausting.

I think this will be the new normal. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. We do things to keep minimal exposure around the stations and even at home. I keep all dirty uniform clothes at work and wash them the next day. I shower and put on clean clothes at the station before going home the next morning. We should be doing this anyway, even without COVID-19, but we don’t tend to change our ways until something like this really hits us. The City of Madison Fire Department is making many changes to ensure we are being as cautious and prepared as we can be.

What’s the most important message first responders want the public to understand during the pandemic?

Be patient! We have to protect ourselves in order to help you, even though you (the community) are our priority. If your state or community is asking you to stay home, please do so.

You are based in Madison, WI. What’s unique about being a firefighter in Madison?

The City of Madison Fire Department has embraced women. We have about 10% women which is higher than most departments. We have to come together to support one another and encourage other women to apply, no experience necessary! I was terrified to apply and then go through an academy with no experience or knowledge, but the five other women in my class and our captain who was a woman were (are) incredible to be next to! I am proud to be part of a department that supports its women and gives them the same opportunities as the men we work with.

Thanks, Chelsea, and all first responders for going above and beyond to protect your communities during these difficult days (and every day!). 

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Chelsea celebrating 10 years at Pro-West in 2018
Chelsea celebrating 10 years at Pro-West in 2018
In her role at Pro-West, Chelsea (front row, third from right) provided on-site GIS during the California wildfires in 2017.

Staying Connected During COVID – Meet the Pro-West team