Debra Amesqua | Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Debra Amesqua

Celebrating Wisconsin Visionaries, Changemakers, and Storytellers

Debra Amesqua | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Blazing a Trail While Putting out Fires

Visionary | Debra Amesqua | 1951 - Present

Debra Amesqua wearing a black cowboy hat and a toothy smile holds a mandolin as though she's about to start playing.

Informal Portrait of Debra Amesqua playing mandolin. - Courtesy of Deb Amesqua

Debra Amesqua, a Wisconsin visionary, became Madison’s first female fire chief in 1996 and was the fourth woman in the country to lead a fire department. 

Amesqua, born Debra Jane Hernandez, grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. Her parents loved music and were migrant famers with roots in Mexico. Amesqua’s early exposure to music inspired her to study the clarinet and guitar at Florida State University, making her the first person in her family to attend college. Amesqua left college before graduating, and in 1983, she became a firefighter. Before relocating to Madison, she was assistant chief at the Tallahassee Fire Department where she led the training division. 

She was appointed as the fire chief in Madison on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 15, 1996, and was one of seven women named chief in the U.S. that year. During her first years as chief, she faced strong opposition but gradually earned the respect of her department. Amesqua oversaw nearly 400 personnel and 12 stations including the opening of two new stations, the first in 25 years. Under her leadership, emergency medical services protocol and fire prevention improved throughout Dane County.

Amesqua is a celebrated visionary and received numerous awards during her career, including Chief of the Year by the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association. After 16 years as the Madison fire chief, she retired in 2012.

* This story was adapted from the Deb Amesqua article on, a website created in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, PBS Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin Women's Studies Consortium, and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Additional information was provided by Deb Amesqua.

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