Matt Ziems (STM ’12) – Milwaukee Firefighter & Dive Rescue Team Member

“I am so fortunate to have this life. Do what makes you happy.”

by Katlyn Putney (STM ’10)


Matt Ziems (STM ’12) has been a man on the move for as long as he can remember. Those who knew him in high school remember a student who couldn’t sit still unless it was on the bus ride to a soccer game. Knowing he wouldn’t like working at a desk – and always loving his dad’s stories of life as a Milwaukee firefighter – Ziems knew his career path.

“He never had any bad stories. When he would come home from work, he would always talk about jokes and good times, and every day was different,” recalled Ziems.

Now a nine-year veteran of the Milwaukee Fire Department, Ziems is a Paramedic Firefighter assigned to the Dive Rescue Firehouse in downtown Milwaukee.

As it does for many young people, Ziems’s journey to becoming a firefighter began with the Cadet Program. This two-year program is essentially a paid internship: the Milwaukee Fire Department pays cadets to get all the certifications, education, and training needed as a firefighter. After those two years, cadets earn a spot in the recruit class, and after 16 weeks of additional training, their career with the fire department starts.

Ziems with his wife, Jess, who is also a firefighter, and Ziems responding to a fire.

“The fire department isn’t for everyone. It is a job that is very often praised and shown in a super good light because of the rewarding things we do, but to have those rewarding scenarios, you sometimes have to see and deal with a lot of really dark things,” Ziems explained. “It takes a certain type of person who can perform under pressure and handle a lot of dark material.”

After a few years with the fire department, Ziems wanted to get his feet wet with something new. He decided to join the Dive Rescue Team. “Within two weeks, I went from never breathing underwater to wearing a full-face scuba mask at the bottom of the Milwaukee River doing dive patterns with no visibility. It was a very quick learning curve.”

Ziems in his dive team gear

Although many of the dive team’s calls have grim outcomes, the lives Ziems and his team members save encourage them to keep their heads up. “We recently responded to a call and found the person in the water crying for help. I was the diver who jumped in and kept her on the surface until we could get the inflatable rescue boat to her. And now she’s fine. So being able to make that ‘save’ is incredible.”

For more perspective on what Ziems deals with when a dive team call comes in, consider this: on a recent call, he got into the rig (fire truck), put on his equipment, traveled to the scene, determined where to dive in the water, descended, found and secured the victim, and ascended — all in less than nine minutes.

“Dive team is dirty, scary, and mentally challenging more than physically challenging,” Ziems said. “You’re down there in the river surrounded by shopping carts, dumpsters, cars, and rebar, and it’s hard…but worth it to make ‘saves.’”

Teamwork and camaraderie have always been important to Ziems. “The firehouse for me is a lot like how high school was; it’s a lot of camaraderie and brotherhood and family and fun, and then the second the tones go off, it’s game time, and you go to work.”

Ziems got his first taste of brotherhood at STM through Cavalier soccer. “I loved the Sunday spaghetti dinners and playing FIFA at people’s houses. Seeing friends between classes and just the general camaraderie made each day of high school so much fun.”

Ziems on the varsity soccer team.

Playing Cavalier soccer allowed Ziems to make two sets of important connections. The first was Kevin Dineen, an English teacher and the head boys’ soccer coach. “Through his coaching, he taught me a lot about who I am and how to push myself through challenges,” Ziems said. “In class, he made learning fun. I knew I was going to be a firefighter, so it was hard to care about English class, but the assignments and papers he had us do were very cool, and I’m grateful for that.”

The second connection was his best friends, who he met on the first day of soccer practice. “Since high school, we have driven across the country together multiple times. We’ve been roommates. We’ve been in each other’s weddings. We still see each other all the time. The family-like setting of STM made making connections like this possible. It allowed you to know more people and allowed you to know your people better, and I really enjoyed my time there because of that.”

“I am so fortunate to have this life. Do what makes you happy.”

Ziems, far left, with his best friends Michael Bourne (STM ’11),
Kyle James (STM ’11), and John Dondero (STM ’10)


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