Barriers Didn't Keep Minneapolis Fire Chief from Climbing Career Ladder

A military-style firefighter school pushed then-rookie Bonnie Bleskachek to the limit.

A military-style firefighter school pushed then-rookie Bonnie Bleskachek to the limit.

"I was ready to walk out," she remembers.

A training supervisor stopped her. "He told me, 'You're exactly the kind of person the fire department needs.' "

Late last year, Bleskachek got a more official nod along those lines. She became the first woman and the first openly gay firefighter to rise to the top job as chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department. She is one of two women in Minnesota, the other in tiny Madison Lake, to hold a fire department's highest post.

A Wisconsin native and mother of two, the 41-year-old chief is keener on crediting others than taking credit herself. She gives her predecessor, Rocco Forte, credit for a department emphasis on respecting diversity.

In an era of bureaucratic budget cutting, Forte says, the new chief's people-management skills and business-mindedness make her a leader for the times. "She sees the department as a business. Very few people have that ability."

That priority is a switch from the 1970s, when the best firefighter got to be chief, he says. The department has changed measurably from its days as "an old boys' club," says Forte, who now works with the city's emergency preparedness team.

Eighty-three of the fire department's 440-plus firefighters now are women, the highest ratio of women to men in any fire department in the country. Several women have climbed the ladder to captain and other leadership roles. Women's successes in the department have given Bleskachek and others the boost that she says paved the way for her to become chief.

Her rise to the top and an ability to burst through barriers is partly a result of her own hard work in pushing respect for diversity. For 15 years, she co-chaired the department's cultural awareness committee. In a year as human resources officer, enforcing equality was part of her job.

But this new woman chief isn't all business. She brings personal integrity, thoughtfulness and "a quiet air of competence" to her top job, says Kathleen Mullen, a captain in the department.

Her executive side meshes with a woman's touch that Bleskachek says women before her brought with them into a macho work culture. Ask her about her most valued experiences as a firefighter, and she tells of nurturing small children in a crisis.

Delve into her past, and a deep history emerges of rising to the top, navigating male culture and breaking barriers along the way.

Bonnie Bleskachek grew up as the oldest of five sisters in Chippewa Falls, Wis., a town of 12,000 up the road from Eau Claire.

She was a child who seldom slowed down or spent much time indoors. "I'd be outside from 6 in the morning until my mom dragged me in at night," she remembers.

Most of her friends, she says, were boys. The young Bleskachek was captain of the school safety patrol and played every sport she could baseball, softball, volleyball and football. Track was her favorite, probably because a personal-best sport suited her introverted nature, she says.

Halfway through high school, she broke new ground when she came out as gay. "It's not that there weren't other gay students," she says. But she was first in her school of about 1,000 students to take that step.

A teacher took the matter to the school board. "It caused a ruckus for a while," she remembers. But among her peers, she says, her announcement didn't make much of a ripple. Chalk it up to respect. "I had established myself as an athlete and straight-A student."

Her decision to come out had less to do with courage than a sense of equality and justice. "I've just never been really good at keeping my mouth shut if I really believe in something. Or if something's not being accepted."

When did she know she was gay? "My mom thinks when I was 4," is her ready answer. Her biggest concern about coming out was about how talk at school might affect the sister who was just a year younger.

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