Ill. Fire Department Names First Female Fire Chief
The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.
Apr. 19—In 1994, Springfield got its first female firefighter, Melanie Bryant. In 2010, it got its female fire captain, Cristy Long. And on Wednesday, Heather Moore became the first woman to ever be a fire division chief in the city's history.
Fire Chief Allen Reyne promoted Moore from fire captain to division chief of training during a pinning ceremony. She is one of seven women to ever be a firefighter in Springfield. Five are currently on staff.
Reyne, as well as Mayor Jim Langfelder, acknowledged Moore did not receive the promotion because of her gender but because of her stellar resume.
Nevertheless, they noted the "historic" milestone.
Langfelder said Moore, 46, was "breaking the glass ceiling." He first got to know her when he interviewed candidates for fire chief.
"She can handle herself," Langfelder said. "It's pretty evident early into the conversation, she's a firefighter."
Moore was the fourth female firefighter to join the department and has served since 2000. Though she was born in North Carolina and graduated from High Point University, she came to Springfield in 1996 to "follow a girl and a job." While working as a store manager, a co-worker's husband, who was a Springfield firefighter, encouraged her to test to be a firefighter. As a former college basketball player, Moore said she was not intimidated by the physicality of the job.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Moore said.
From the first day, then-Fire Chief J.D. Knox walked into her recruit academy class, Moore said she knew was "home."
"I had found my purpose," Moore said.
Moore went on to work in all three divisions of the fire department: operations, fire safety and training. She was made a fire captain in 2011.
In 2013, she was chosen by the chief to become a recruit liaison, which involved mentoring new classes of firefighters.
The firefighters that knew her would call her "mom," because she would sweat the details.
"I have a maternal instinct, and they're my brothers," Moore said. "I'm looking out for them. What you say matters. Your behaviors speak more for you right now than your words do. It's just laying the groundwork to make sure they're successful."
Moore said along the way, she has had to figure out "her way" of performing her duties as 120-pound, 5-foot-5 woman.
To do so meant she had to be able to adapt. She considers herself a problem-solver.
"You can be the fastest and you will run out of steam," Moore said. "You can be the strongest and you will run out of energy. You can be the smartest and there is an obstacle that you can run into that will be physical. But if you are the most determined, you will always overcome."
Patrick Kenny, the fire chief of Western Springs, a Chicago suburb, drove down just for Moore's promotion.
"In the fire service, it's a bigger challenge for women," Kenny said. "So you have to be even a step above men. And she just smokes them."
Kenny first met Moore seven years ago through the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, where both are instructors. They worked on curriculum together, but Kenny remembered being "mesmerized" by Moore the first time he sat in on a class she taught about leadership and development.
"Certain people have that 'command presence' when they walk in the room. They kind of take it over," Kenny said. "She just had this class eating out of her hand. Very, very powerful."
Kenny said he was blown away.
"Afterward I told her, 'I would love to work for you some day,'" Kenny said. "Not the other way around. She really struck me."
He considers Moore "like a daughter." She was supportive of Kenny when he lost his 20-year-old son to suicide and then his wife after a year-long bout with cancer, he said. Of Kenny's three boys, his son who died was the only one who had a "firefighter's heart."
"The only thing I really missed was I never got [to] pin a badge on him," Kenny said.
So when Moore called Kenny up to pin her badge, his hands shook. There were tears.
She was the first person whose badge he had ever pinned in his 35-year career.
"She gave me the opportunity to do what I missed with my son," Kenny said. "I will never, ever forget that moment, ever."
The promotion was a big milestone for Moore. But it was also historic for the department.
She received loud applause during her pinning ceremony. Her wife of two years, Sonnie Botwinski, attended the ceremony. Their "son," a 55-pound wolfhound terrier mix named Walter, couldn't be in attendance.
Her colleagues said they don't anticipate any difficulty for Moore in assuming her new role.
"Everybody respects her in the department," Division Chief of Operations Buddy Neighbours said. "If you got that, you've got everything."
"If you've seen her resume, you will just say, 'Oh my gosh,'" Deputy Division Chief of Operations Jeph Bassett said.
Moore said there has been one growing pain already for a new female division chief. She had to wear a "white shirt" two sizes too big to the ceremony because the department didn't have a command staff uniform small enough to fit her.
"It's a good problem to have," Moore said.