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For 20-year Latino firefighter, it’s not about exclusively fighting fuegos 

By José Santiago, Special to La Prensa  

For the past two decades, Hector M. Torres has been a focused Cleveland firefighter. Over this expanse of time, Torres has seen the city grow, burn, and, then, re-build.

With Cleveland ’s recent cutbacks in services, it is surprising that civil servants, such as Torres, have not left the force for more lucrative opportunities, but, rather, have persevered through some of the most colossal cutbacks in the city’s recent history. 

But Torres believes that firefighting is one of the most important services that a city can provide; he also believes that there is always more room for Latinos, meaning that there have to be Latino leaders there to lead the way.

Torres is Latino, so he can help.

He remembers his humble beginnings as a firefighter and sees opportunities for Latinos in today’s department, despite some drawbacks. For example, the administration at times forgets that many of the victims are Spanish speaking—it’s hard to save someone in English when a fire victim only understands Spanish. 

Torres is bilingual, so he can help. 

Torres had always wanted to be a firefighter—his father was a firefighter in Arroyo, Puerto Rico . So when he graduated from high school in Puerto Rico in 1974 he knew it was just a question of time before he would take the civil service exam for firefighter. 

His Puerto Rican education helped him pass the Cleveland civil service exam, but he was also aided by a program entitled Vanguard Volunteer Firefighters.

In 1982, Torres found recruitment posters from Vanguard that offered tutoring and training for minorities for recruitment as a Cleveland firefighter. He viewed this as a great opportunity, in a city that had very few, if any, Latinos in the fire department.

The three month tutoring program that he received from Vanguard allowed Torres to perform well on the civil service exam—this was the first step in acquiring an appointment to the firefighters’ academy.

“Today, however, it is more difficult to pass the exam because the six-month tutoring programs are more technical than twenty years ago; with Latinos receiving a less adequate education in U.S. public schools, it makes it harder for them to pass the civil service exam,” explains Torres.

But Latinos are encouraged to participate. Currently, more than fifty Latinos are firefighters in Cleveland , out of a total force of 950.

Torres informed this writer that it is actually easier for a Latino to become a civil servant under affirmative action than it was twenty years ago. The tutoring programs for the bi-annual civil service exam are still in place and have broadened their range of services to include all minorities.

Information about tutoring programs can be found by calling El Comité Hispano, The Afro-American Center, or City Hall.

According to Torres, today, the job of being a firefighter in Cleveland is more than just fighting fires. It involves first response teams, paramedics, hazardous material incidence response, heavy rescue, water rescue, prevention programs, and public relations.

Because of recent cutbacks, there is a strain on firefighters to accomplish all these tasks and provide adequate services to the community. The cutbacks, however, did not target Latinos and were spread across the board, according to seniority.

“It is the second cutback that the city has ever made and it has only happened once in my career. I’m grateful to serve the city and plan to keep serving while making sure that the doors stay open for Latinos interested in firefighting careers everywhere in Ohio .”

When Torres started twenty years ago, less than one half of one percent of all firefighters was Latino—that number has increased to over six percent.

According to the twenty-year veteran, “There is room for more.”

Editor’s Note: José Santiago, a native of New York City , has a BA degree in Fine Arts from Cleveland State University ; he free lances and teaches youth about mural painting and Puerto Rican folk arts.






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