Department of Emergency Medicine collaborates with Madison Fire to address workforce diversity, reduce barriers toward Fire/EMS careers

Michael Spigner, MD, NRP (left) and Fire Chief Chris Carbon (right) at Station 14 with members of the Madison Fire Department. Photo by Cynthia Schuster.

A community impact grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, will support a collaborative initiative aimed at making public safety more inclusive, reflective, and responsive to the diverse communities it serves.

The $500,000 award will support the City of Madison Fire Department (MFD) and Fire Fighters Local 311 union, in partnership with Assistant Professor Michael Spigner, MD, NRP, over three years to develop and pilot an internship program, specifically designed to enhance workforce diversity within the fire service and address critical gaps in public health and safety.

Set to begin this June, the Firefighter/EMT Development Program’s primary objectives are to:

  • Develop and pilot a two-year, paid internship with MFD leading to eventual workforce entry in the public safety sector.
  • Provide support for participants to pursue an associate degree in fire science or paramedicine, with protected time for study, school supplies, and mentorship, to maximize the likelihood of success.
  • Use evidence-informed strategies to remove barriers in recruiting, training, and hiring qualified individuals from backgrounds underrepresented in public safety careers.

“We are excited to invite Madison-area youth from diverse backgrounds to step into an opportunity that may have felt unreachable, to see it now as a viable and enduring career path,” said MFD Fire Chief Christopher Carbon, a driving force behind the new internship program. “The program will not only create job opportunities, but also build role models within our neighborhoods.”

The Madison Fire Department is the second largest emergency services agency in Wisconsin, with nearly 400 firefighters responding to more than 35,000 service calls annually. It has been an essential public service for the Madison community since 1856. Chief Carbon noted that MFD envisions the pathway as a lasting beacon of progress within the fire service and the community.

The initiative aligns with broad efforts to mitigate health disparities in Wisconsin’s urban and rural areas. By diversifying roles in fire and emergency medical services (EMS) – critical healthcare access points for medically underserved and vulnerable populations – the program simultaneously aims to improve healthcare access, reduce disparities in health outcomes, and mitigate socioeconomic burdens associated with urgent medical and safety response.

“Studies have demonstrated that fostering more diverse medical teams is a pivotal strategy to bridge health disparities effectively while promoting teamwork, communication, and innovation among health care providers,” said Dr. Spigner, the lead academic partner on the grant, who shared his enthusiasm for the program and partnership between MFD and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Despite demographic shifts in the United States, historically underrepresented groups, particularly individuals identifying as Black, Hispanic, and/or female, remain underrepresented in public safety careers. A 2019 study published in the journal Prehospital Emergency Care concluded that the proportion of paramedics identifying as Black remained flat at 3% over a 10-year period and suggested that EMS workforce diversity is unlikely to undergo substantial change in the near future.

The career pathway program consists of a two-year, full-time, paid internship, paired with structured mentorship and support to complete an associate degree program at Madison Area Technical College (MATC). The program strives to protect participants from financial stressors that may hinder their capacity to complete education and training by providing a living wage as part of the pathway. Upon successful completion, participants will be eligible for full-time employment with MFD.

“The Firefighter/EMT Development Program is not just about diversifying our workforce; it’s a step toward addressing social determinants of health and promoting education access,” noted Chief Carbon. “Our commitment extends beyond employment; we aim to foster an environment where participants can thrive and progress within the organization.”

MFD will partner with several community organizations to identify and recruit qualified candidates through grassroots marketing efforts and by engaging pre-college academic programs, such as MATC’s “NextGen Responders Academy,” which introduces firefighting and EMS careers to Madison Metropolitan School District students.

Support and alignment with the City of Madison’s priorities pertaining to diversity, equity, and inclusion have fortified the pathway program’s sustainability beyond the initial grant period. Collaboration and unified commitments from MFD administration and the Fire Fighters Local 311 union will be pivotal to ensuring the success and longevity of the initiative.

The program’s success will be steered by strong partnerships, including an academic collaboration with Dr. Spigner, who will lend expertise in empirical evaluation and quality improvement targets. Moreover, MFD’s administrative prowess, backed by the City of Madison, and support from firefighters’ union solidify the program’s organizational capacity to successfully implement the program. To ascertain the pathway’s efficacy, a comprehensive evaluation following the first internship cohort will measure workforce diversification, educational achievements, and program retention.

By providing a structured pathway for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, the pilot internship program marks a significant commitment towards fostering inclusiveness and representation within the public safety sector, as one of several important strategies to reduce health disparities in the community.

Interested candidates may apply for the Fire & EMS Pathway internship from March 13, 2024, to April 14, 2024, at

Michael Spigner, MD, NRP, is an Assistant Professor in the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine and is dual boarded in Emergency Medicine and EMS. He is the current Chair of the Quality and Patient Safety Committee for the UW Health EMS Consortium, which provides medical direction for the busiest EMS agencies in Dane County, including Madison Fire Department. He is also Director of Prehospital Medicine Informatics for the Department of Emergency Medicine.

This project is funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP), a grantmaking program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health committed to improving health and advancing health equity in Wisconsin through investments in community partnerships, education and research. WPP represents a far-reaching commitment by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to greatly improve the health of people in Wisconsin now and for years to come.