FDNY's first female EMS chief to retire after 3 decades of service
“She has broken multiple glass ceilings in her career," Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said, praising Lillian Bonsignore for her leadership through hard times
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — The first woman to lead New York’s cadre of emergency medical technicians and paramedics is calling it a career, the Daily News has learned.
Lillian Bonsignore — who is also the first openly gay leader of the city’s EMS service — has had a three-decade run as a front-line first responder.
Assigned to the four-star post in May 2019, Bonsignore, 53, led the city’s 4,640 EMS members during the COVID pandemic, unrest over the murder of George Floyd and the death of EMS Lt. Alison Russo, who was viciously stabbed by a deranged man while on duty outside her Queens EMS station in late September.
“We also had a flood and a couple of storms in there too,” Bonsignore recalled. “When I signed on, no one told me we would have a worldwide pandemic that would shut the city down.”
“As first responders do, particularly EMS, we put our best foot forward and took care of a very sick and needy city in one of the darkest times I remember in the course of my career,” she said. “I’m so proud of the work they have done.”
In 1991, Bonsignore was a single mom trying to overcome her hardscrabble Bronx childhood when her pediatrician encouraged her to become an EMT.
After joining EMS, Bonsignore worked her way up the FDNY ladder, earning respect and accolades from colleagues across the decades. She was chief of EMS training when former Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro tapped her for EMS’ top spot.
Her last day on the job will be Dec. 30. FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh hasn’t named Bonsignore’s replacement.
Bonsignore’s potential successors include EMS chief of training Cesar Escobar and Deputy Assistant Chief Michael Fields, said a source familiar with the matter.
“Chief Bonsignore has guided the country’s busiest EMS system through some of our darkest days, including when NYC became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kavanagh said Wednesday. “She has broken multiple glass ceilings in her career .... She has opened the door for so many great leaders to follow.”
During her tenure, Bonsignore spearheaded efforts to improve communications and technology for rank-and-file first responders. She also cleared the way for city ambulances to be equipped with motorized power stretchers that can self-lift and lower.
“It may not seem like a lot, but we saved a generation of back, neck and shoulder injuries,” Bonsignore said.
She’s also credited with making structural changes to the EMS hierarchy and increasing the number of chiefs in the department, which were in short supply.
“It was really something that needed to happen,” she said. “My theory is to do things people will forget about. If you do it well enough, it will become institutionalized.”
View from the top: A career climb rooted in female empowerment
New York Fire Department EMS Chief Lillian Bonsignore credits the support and encouragement she received from the women in her life for her success in emergency medicine
Bonsignore said she had “a thousand more things” she wishes she could accomplish before retiring and hopes her successor continues the push for better safety measures and decrease the sizable pay gap between EMS and other first responders so EMTs and paramedics “are able to support themselves and not work multiple jobs.”
“It’s a young profession compared to other first responder jobs,” she said of EMS. “We have to continue to grow so people in our society realize we’re not just a group of ambulance drivers. We’re highly trained medical professionals that can bring emergency room training to your bedside.”
Bonsignore says she’s still friends with the pediatrician who encouraged her to apply for EMS.
“Now I get to talk to her about retiring,” she joked.