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Member Profile: Meet Debra Amesqua, 2011 Career Chief of the Year

Return to the December 15, 2011 issue of On Scene

IAFC On Scene: December 15, 2011

Debra Amesqua
2011 Career Chief of the Year, Madison Fire Department Chief, retiring this month

Chief Debra Amesqua has been the fire chief for Madison (Wis.) Fire Department, a career department serving about 225 thousand residents. The department has 12 stations and a staff of 377. Chief Amesqua is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer and has completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She was awarded the Career Fire Chief of the Year for 2011 at Fire-Rescue International in August.

As a soon-to-be retired chief, what is your most memorable or rewarding experience in the fire service?

I’ve always said the people I hire would be my legacy, and that remains true today. The most rewarding experience I can think of is working to build the City of Madison Fire Department of the future with a group of outstanding individuals who have added so much to the definition of what it means to be part of the fire service.

What’s something that, if others knew this about you, it would surprise them?

It surprises a lot of people to learn that in my down time, I build custom mandolins, from the specially milled and cured for sugar maple I bring from Missouri to curing it and tap tuning it for sound quality. After that, it takes about two months to get the instrument “in the white” -- that is, ready for finishing and polishing. Then come four or five weeks of applications of French polish. It’s taught me patience and being able to listen.

What have you and your department accomplished that you want to share with others in the fire and emergency service?

Regular analysis of the local fire problem plays an integral role in our short-term and long-term planning. National and local fire-cause data influence program development for community fire safety education. The 2008 student fire-safety partnership with the University of Wisconsin Dean of Students Office and the Madison Fire Department was developed after some high profile fire losses in 2007. Madison Fire Department fire prevention staff assessed the risks by considering local fire data, demographics of the student populations and student attitudes about smoke alarms.

As a result of this assessment, MFD worked with Building inspection staff to develop a comprehensive and contemporary smoke alarm ordinance. The ordinance requires 110-volt alarms with battery backup or alarms powered by 10-year lithium tamper-resistant batteries. The ordinance is supported by educational and enforcement components.

Other community risk assessments have influenced inspection practices. In the 3 ½ years since, our city has suffered a single fire fatality. We take that tragedy seriously, but statistically a city our size could expect to experience 7-9 fatalities in that time period, so we feel we’re on the right track.

Has your department implemented a creative way to address a need or challenge?

When I arrived 16 years ago, nobody wanted change. But, everyone wanted things to get better. During my tenure as fire chief, we’ve worked hard to stay true to our fundamental mission while discarding old beliefs that no longer serve us and we’ve affirmed our commitment to a broader set of values to include caring and compassion.

Measuring the effectiveness of the change and verifying its understanding by all personnel is difficult. A misunderstood mission can derail or cause an unwanted change. So, I verify the personnel understanding of our mission by the number of letters and cards that I received from our customers that state, ”the service rendered by the Madison Fire Department was wonderfully caring and compassionate.” And the customer must use the words “Caring and Compassionate” or the compliment is not counted as verification.

What challenges have you faced (or are now facing) and how did you meet them?

When I was named fire chief, the first woman fire chief in the state of Wisconsin, I was dismissed as an “affirmative action” hire without the credentials or experience to do a credible job. About five years into my tenure, Fire Fighters Local 311 took a no-confidence vote against me that passed with a strong majority. The mayor at the time called for my resignation “to prevent further damage to the department.”

While all this was happening, a drug raid of a downtown Madison bar turned up a link to Madison firefighters. It was about then that I was able to arrange a truce with the union president. I wasn’t going anywhere, he wasn’t going anywhere, but we both wanted the best for the fire department. That’s where we started. We found a common purpose—an improved City of Madison Fire Department—and worked together to make it happen.

What do you like best about your membership in the IAFC?

I am a lifelong learner. The opportunity to interact with other chiefs, sharing ideas and information is invaluable to me.

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