Michele Pankow makes history as first woman to serve as Rockford Fire Chief

Pankow said she hopes she can inspire a new generation in her position of leadership.
Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 4:09 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - It’s the start of a new era for the Rockford Fire Department, as Chief Michele Pankow took her oath as the new chief Wednesday morning at Memorial Hall.

When Michele Pankow joined the Rockford Fire Department at just 22 years old, she knew she wanted to make a difference.

“I like to be the best at what I do, and I like to give my best,” Pankow said.

But she said she never imagined her ambition would take her this far, becoming the first woman in Rockford’s history to lead the fire department.

“I’ve worked very, very hard over the years. I think the willingness to not give up, to not give in, I think has served me pretty well,” said Pankow.

The ceremony marked the end of a months-long search for a new leader, after former fire chief, Derek Bergsten, said goodbye at the end of April.

“I am extremely proud of her,” Bergsten said. “I’m overjoyed for myself, for her, for her son and her entire family to have an event like this.”

Bergsten flew in from Colorado Wednesday morning to surprise Pankow, who served as a division fire chief under his leadership.

“She’s going to do an incredible job, she’s well suited for the position, and they picked a qualified candidate,” said Bergsten.

Pankow said the magnitude of what her appointment represents for women in the region didn’t hit her right away. But now she hopes she can inspire a new generation.

“Understanding that now I kind of have that in my hands, it certainly sets that example,” said Pankow. “It’s a pretty good feeling to send that message out -- that you really can do it.”

Pankow joined the Rockford Fire Department in 1992. She climbed the ranks, becoming the first woman in the department’s history to serve as division chief in 2016.

Copyright 2021 WIFR. All rights reserved.