Ill. FD names first female chief in 140-year history

Michele Pankow, a 28-year veteran of the Rockford Fire Department, and a 2021 American Red Cross Disaster Services Hero, was named head of the department


Jeff Kolkey
Rockford Register Star, Ill.

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Mayor Tom McNamara was surprised to learn the American Red Cross of Northern Illinois had named the city's next fire chief a 2021 Disaster Services Hero.

Michele Pankow, a 28-year veteran of the Rockford Fire Department, earned the recognition earlier this year for organizing the region's pandemic disaster response.

Michele Pankow was formally installed Wednesday as chief of the Rockford Fire Department, taking an oath of office during a celebration at Veteran's Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford.
Michele Pankow was formally installed Wednesday as chief of the Rockford Fire Department, taking an oath of office during a celebration at Veteran's Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford. (Photo/City of Rockford, Illinois)

The honor came up inadvertently during a meeting McNamara had with Pankow after she had already been chosen by the Rockford Board of Fire and Police Commissioners to serve as the 11th chief in the fire department's 140-year history and the first woman to achieve the top seat.

"She was named a 2021 hero by the American Red Cross, and she hadn't told anyone," McNamara said. "She is just that kind of person. She isn't in this for recognition. She isn't in this for public praise or accolades or fame. She does her job to serve the people of the community. She is a true servant leader."

Pankow was formally installed Wednesday as chief of the Rockford Fire Department, taking an oath of office during a celebration at Veteran's Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford.

It was the second history-making ceremony in eight days, coming after Carla Redd became the first woman and first Black person to take the oath as chief of the Rockford Police Department.

Pankow thanked her family, McNamara and the fire commission. She thanked former chiefs Bill Robertson and Derek Bergsten for pushing, each in their own ways, for her to make the most of her opportunities. And she thanked the Rockford Fire Department who she called a second family.

"What an incredible day. What an incredible opportunity to be standing up here and talking in front of all of you," Pankow said. "I am so humbled and proud. I have this big mix of emotions, but I have to say I am most proud of my department. I have just such a wonderful, wonderful group of people I have worked with all these years."

Pankow succeeds Bergsten who after 12 years as Rockford's chief in the spring accepted a job as fire chief of a Fort Collins, Colorado, department. Bergsten traveled back to Rockford to attend Pankow's swearing-in ceremony.

Bergsten said he was proud that all four finalists for the chief's job were internal candidates who had worked their way through the ranks of the Rockford department. Bergsten said Pankow was a good choice for the next chief.

"I think she is extraordinary," Bergsten said. "She is an incredible individual, a tremendous asset for the organization and she is going to do an incredible job."

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(c)2021 Rockford Register Star, Ill.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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