May 5—A veteran paramedic who overcame a hardscrabble Bronx childhood to log an incredible 28 years with the FDNY will have stars in her eyes and four more on her collar Tuesday as the history-making new Chief of EMS.
Lillian Bonsignore, a single mom barely out of her teens when she started as an emergency medical technician in 1991, becomes the first woman to hold the rank in the department's 154-year history. She takes over the FDNY's 4,500-strong EMS department from the retiring Chief James Booth.
With her promotion, Bonsignore, 50, will also set two new milestones for the FDNY—becoming the highest-ranked woman in the uniformed service, and the highest-ranked openly gay member.
"It's kind of odd that the thing I get celebrated for the most—people are always like, 'Wow, you're a woman and you're gay'—are the two things I put the least work into," chuckled Bonsignore, now a mother to two daughters.
"Someday we're going to have this same promotion and it's not going to be a big deal at all. But I guess that time is not right now, and I'm accepting my responsibility as a role model and mentor for those around me."
She steps into her new role at a time of heightened tensions between EMS and Mayor de Blasio, who angered the department's unions by dismissing the sizable pay gap between firefighters and medics. Firefighters far outearn EMS workers, although EMS carries the bulk of the department's 911 call load.
EMS is also struggling to recruit and retain enough talent to cover its 24-hour work schedule amid high demand for emergency medical services across the boroughs—a problem that has plagued the department for decades but grown particularly acute in recent years.
Bonsignore likened EMS to the city's power grid—it's "not really something you think about until you need it. And when it's not there, boy, do you miss it."
The prestigious post was hardly on Bonsignore's radar when she signed on. She expected no more than a summer gig on her way to medical school.
After 28 years—delivering "countless babies," surviving 9/11 and making incredible friends, she's happy to pay it forward.
"I take this promotion very seriously," she said. "I had a difficult childhood ... and I would not be in this position if not for the strong women who were placed in my path along the way. They encouraged me and kept me going."
Her female Bronx pediatrician convinced Bonsignore, then a single mom of 18, to become an EMT.
"It's my position to do the same for all those coming behind me—men and women, gay or straight," she said. "I want them to know that, yes, it is possible for you to be a young mother in the Bronx, struggling to make it day to day, and still be possible for you to get to the point where you are running one of the biggest and most recognized EMS systems in the world."
Bonsignore has worked her way across the city and up the FDNY ladder, earning respect and accolades from colleagues across the decades.
Oren Barzilay, president of the EMT and paramedic union, said he was proud to witness Bonsignore's historic achievement.
"I wish her great success," he said, noting she will be running the most diverse agency within the FDNY.
Vincent Variale, head of the EMS officers union, called her promotion "well-earned."
"She's been effective in every role she's had and I look forward to working with Lillian," he said.
Bonsignore is eager for the day of her official installation with her entire family looking on.
"My wife will be there with me, front and center, and my daughters," she said. "I'm excited."