By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
ROCKFORD — Mayor Tom McNamara was befuddled by Michele Pankow’s response when he described her as a hero during a recent meeting.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Who told you?'” McNamara said Wednesday during a ceremony to swear Pankow in as the city’s new fire chief.
Pankow thought the mayor was referring to an honor she had received from the American Red Cross, a recognition she had kept secret. Pankow had been selected earlier this year as a Disaster Services Hero, and McNamara said her decision not to seek praise for the award is another example of the selfless leadership style that makes her an excellent choice as chief.
“She’s not in this for the recognition. She’s not in this for public praise or accolades or fame. She does her job to serve the people of our community,” McNamara said. “She is a true servant leader. That’s obvious to all that know her, and it was obvious to the commissioners who selected her to be the 11th chief of the Rockford Fire Department.”
Pankow, who joined the department as a firefighter in 1992, has been division chief of operations since 2016. After being sworn in at Veterans Memorial Hall on Wednesday morning, she is now the 11th chief in the 140-year history of the department. She is the first woman to lead the department, and McNamara described it as a “historic day for our community.”
Photos: Michele Pankow sworn in as Rockford Fire Department chief
Pankow’s ceremony came eight days after Carla Redd was sworn in as the 13th police chief in the city’s history. Redd is the first woman and first Black person to lead the police department.
“I could not be more proud that our little girls in our community, like my own, Olympia Rose, now can look out and see Chief Redd and Chief Pankow and know that really in Rockford the sky is the limit to what they can do,” McNamara said.
The three-member Rockford Board of Fire and Police Commissioners unanimously selected Pankow on Aug. 23.
“The willingness to not give up – not give in – has served me pretty well over the years,” Pankow said. “As far as being the first woman to be in this position, I look at it just as what an honor to be the 11th chief of the Rockford Fire Department”
Pankow said her initial goals as chief include creating a plan to address aging infrastructure and the increasing volume of emergency medical services calls.
“I do have a couple of different initiatives to try and reduce that call volume on the front end so that we can actually streamline that service and make sure that service is being directed where it needs to be directed,” she said.
She also wants to improve the department’s diversity.
“We’ve made improvements, but there’s certainly a lot of room to grow,” she said.
Pankow replaces Derek Bergsten, who left the department in early May after being named chief of the Poudre Fire Authority in Colorado. Bergsten was one of two chiefs that Pankow worked with in Rockford. The other was Bill Robertson, who spent 36 years with the Rockford Fire Department before retiring in 2008. Robertson died in February 2013.
Bergsten came to Rockford from Colorado on Wednesday to surprise and congratulate his successor.
“Chief Pankow definitely has big shoes to fill in the replacement of Chief Bergsten, but I’m confident (she) is more than up to the task,” McNamara said. “She has shown she has incredible leadership skills and the support of the department. Together, they will continue to raise the bar and make this department the best department in the entire state of Illinois.”