As the first female chief of the Madison (Wis.) Fire Department, Debra Amesqua fended off character attacks and internal sabotage while trying to lead the department into the 21st century.</p>
Chief Debra Amesqua has a love of many things: her family, her fire department, her art and her need to stand up for what is right. In fact, for nearly three decades, Amesqua’s loves have helped her through tough times as the first female chief of the Madison (Wis.) Fire Department — where she fended off character attacks and internal sabotage while trying to lead the department into the 21st century.
Amesqua was named Madison’s fire chief in January 1996, becoming one of only seven women to head a U.S. fire department. She also was the first Latina chief in the country.
And now Amesqua is FIRE CHIEF’s 2011 Career Chief of the Year.
A Late Calling
Amesqua began her fire-service career later in life. In fact, she was 33 years old with a 9-year-old daughter, building guitars and taking music classes at a local college when recruiters from the Tallahassee (Fla.) Fire Department came to speak to female students about firefighting.
At the time, most women hired were placed in administrative positions. However, the TFD wanted field-ready firefighters and sought candidates. It was a tempting offer. Amesqua already had experience in male-dominated fields and was attracted to the stable employment and benefits that could support her daughter. She also liked to “dig in and get dirty,” so the opportunity seemed like a good fit.
Amesqua wasn’t really hazed when she joined the Tallahassee Fire Department in August 1983. Indeed, she counts herself lucky, because her first crew was staffed with seasoned professionals with 20 years or more experience. They weren’t intimidated by her presence, she said. She also credits being an older woman with previous employment in male-dominated fields.
“That was a good thing for me,” Amesqua said. “What they wanted was someone who could do the job and get along with others on the crew. I did that quite well.”
However, Amesqua said she experienced backlash from younger, often white male firefighters. It happened after five years on the department, when some of the new recruits seemed intimidated by women in the department who were physically fit and had been doing the job for years. They’d use inappropriate language, slang and other actions to try and demean women on staff.
When it happened to Amesqua, she would pull the firefighter aside to talk one-on-one about resolving the animosity and establishing a cordial, professional environment. She also would remind him about the department’s code-of-conduct guidelines, noting that if she could live by them she expected those around her — male or female — to do the same.
“It wasn’t that it took courage,” she said. “It was just that the language and actions were so inappropriate, they wouldn’t have been allowed in other professional environments.”
Amesqua believes it’s best to face such issues head-on.
“Once I got the rep of being straightforward and not putting up with shenanigans, that all went away,” she said. “Those of us who came in during the time were the ‘whistle-blowers,’ if you will. But some of us addressed it differently.”
Amesqua felt the fire department supported her wholeheartedly, and she rose through the ranks to lieutenant, captain and assistant chief.
Cold Reception Up North
At the time, Amesqua also was involved with Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit organization with a national office in Madison. During her visits for meetings, she “fell in love with the community.”
Amesqua developed relationships with Wisconsin fire leadership, and soon learned that Madison’s fire chief planned to retire. She applied and was announced as fire chief on Jan. 15, 1996. Her appointment brought instant criticism, with some claiming that she was too much of an outsider and others claiming that she had too little experience. Some simply dismissed Amesqua as an affirmative-action hire, while others attacked her character and lifestyle.
At her swearing-in, Ron Greer — one of Amesqua’s most vocal critics, a firefighter, fundamentalist preacher and anti-gay activist — sat at the back of the room holding a sign with her name and a line crossing it out.
The situation deteriorated when Greer launched a smear campaign in 1997, outing Amesqua as a lesbian and circulating anti-gay literature at firehouses while he was on duty.
“I advised him it was inappropriate and that Madison law prohibits discrimination based on sexual preference,” she said.
The department suspended Greer for two months and Amesqua recommended that the Police and Fire Commission fire him. The case continued for four more years, going as far as the state Supreme Court. Greer lost his case and was fired.
About five years into Amesqua’s tenure as fire chief, and while the lawsuit still was ongoing, IAFF Regional Vice President Joe Conway called on Fire Fighters Local 311 to take a no-confidence vote against Amesqua. The result was 171 to 18 against her. Later, then-Mayor Sue Bauman publicly called for Amesqua’s resignation “to prevent further damage to the department.”
It all was part of the scathing criticism that started as soon the fire department named Amesqua chief. People called her incompetent. Chief officers tried to sabotage her by not sharing information, and the union filed baseless grievances, she said. The mudslinging seemed endless.
Meanwhile, a December 1999 drug raid of a downtown Madison bar turned up a link to Madison firefighters. Two firefighters at the bar pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine charges and police suspected 12 others of being involved in the sale, manufacture and distribution of cocaine. In fact, police believed the drugs were being distributed not just from the bar, but also out of firehouses. The firefighters later were fired.
It was at that time that Amesqua arranged a truce with Conway. “I wasn’t going anywhere, he wasn’t going anywhere, but we both wanted the best for the fire department,” she said. “The incident opened a dialogue with Conway where I could ask [the union] to work with me to improve the department.”
Now, Conway and Amesqua work well together, and she recently received an Award of Appreciation from Local 311. And when Amesqua celebrated her 60th birthday this June by announcing that she would retire at the end of the year, Conway said publicly that he was sorry to see her go and wished she would stay on.
“Conway and I are best buds now,” Amesqua said.
At the Forefront
Amesqua has earned much respect from her colleagues. In a letter nominating Amesqua for the 2011 Fire Chief of the Year Awards, FIRE 20/20 Executive Director Larry Sagen, wrote that she “demonstrates the courage and valor of a true 21st century leader in her department, in her community and in the fire service.
“She has made significant contributions in the areas of labor-management relations, capacity building, leadership development, diversity and inclusion, emergency response, fire prevention, life-safety programs and community relations,” Sagen wrote. “She has overcome leadership obstacles and challenges and built one of the most diverse, inclusive departments in the country.”
Sagen noted that Amesqua stands out as one of the few fire chiefs who encourage the fire service to be more environmentally conscious. Under her leadership, Madison Fire Department’s Station No. 12 has won four state and national awards, including the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-Platinum certification.
Such benchmarks are the glories of the job. But there’s still a lot of stress. So at the end of a hard day Amesqua sheds her fire uniform, replaces it with jeans, a baseball cap and a work-belt, and heads to a basement studio to construct mandolins. It’s a way to reflect on the day and revisit that creative spirit, she said.
“Those of us in the fire service deal with stressful situations every single day,” Amesqua said. “We need to be able to release that stress in some way, and I do it through music and the construction of musical instruments.”
Amesqua credits part of her success with surrounding herself with the right people. The chief has two sets: her loved ones and the “dead meat” group, a consortium of business and legal professionals who can provide an outsider’s view on the department’s public perception and bottom line.
“The dead meat group … are those high-level management and well-respected businesspeople who can help review my proposals, poke holes in them and let me know whether I will be dead meat or not,” she laughed. “That type of network has worked extremely well for me.”
When it comes to leadership, Amesqua recommends that chiefs recognize their mistakes, apologize, fix them and know better the next time they are addressing a specific issue. They also must have stalwart ethical values.
“People are going to ask you to compromise your integrity; they are going to ask you to lie for them or approve something that shouldn’t be approved,” she said. “So you must have a good idea of who you are.”
Amesqua officially will retire on Jan. 3, 2012. She will be moving back to Tallahassee to be near her family and her two grandchildren, and to continue building her mandolins.