Madison Fire Chief Debra Amesqua — one of the first female firefighters in the country and the first woman to lead the department — marked her 60th birthday Wednesday by announcing she will retire Jan. 3, ending a 16-year tenure that went from tumultuous to triumphant.
“It has been a great run,” said Amesqua, who will return to Florida, where her 84-year-old mother, daughter and “beautiful grandbabies” live.
When she was named chief in January 1996, Amesqua was among only seven women to head one of the nation’s 32,000 fire departments.
A field training officer in Tallahassee, Fla., at the time, Amesqua, who is Hispanic and lesbian, was assailed as an unqualified, affirmative-action hire who had just 12 years of experience with the Florida department.
She weathered a no-confidence vote from Firefighters Local 311 and questions about her competence from former Mayor Sue Bauman.
But Amesqua went on to see all of the department’s frontline equipment replaced, the opening of the first new fire station in 25 years with three more to come, and the addition of a seventh ambulance, among other improvements.
Last year, Amesqua was awarded the Alverno College Alumni Association award for professional achievement for her work on senior level management training for fire service women and for breaking down barriers for people of color.
“It was rocky at first,” said Mayor Paul Soglin, who also was mayor when Amesqua was hired “because she displayed great leadership qualities and she understood management systems.”
“The qualities that got her through the tough times were her building trust, being receptive to suggestions from members of the department,” said Soglin, who “was looking forward to working with her” since returning to the mayor’s office in April.
“I’m disappointed that she’s retiring,” Soglin said.
And in a turnabout from Amesqua’s early years, Local 311 President Joe Conway Jr. is, too.
“I told her I was sorry to see her go and wish she’d stay,” he said.
Over the last five years, Conway said, “a really good working relationship” developed. “We put aside a lot of our differences and worked toward a common goal” of making the department one of the best in the country, he said. “I can’t remember the last time we filed a grievance.”
And since February — when Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his controversial law to restrict collective bargaining rights for most public employees, prompting massive protests with firefighters at the forefront — that relationship deepened. “The chief was right with us,” Conway said.
Of her firefighters’ role in the protests, Amesqua said, “I couldn’t be prouder. They have operated their organization professionally and with integrity” and “demonstrated the quality of the individuals who are part of the department.”
Amesqua and department safety experts also clashed with Capitol administrators who had locked exit doors during the protests in violation of state fire code.
When she began as chief, Amesqua said, “I expected controversy ... Anyone who comes into this organization, they’re going to have to earn their wings.”
And, she said, “I will leave knowing that we succeeded together, working our way through challenges, jointly overcoming obstacles and making a difference for this great community in the only way that lasts. We worked collaboratively and respectfully with each other.”
State Journal reporter George Hesselberg contributed to this story.