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Luis Santiago: Toledo’s first Latino Fire Chief

By Kevin Milliken, Special to La Prensa


July 2, 2011: Luis Santiago is quietly blazing a trail for other Latinos in Toledo, becoming the first Latino Fire Chief in the city’s history. Santiago took the oath of office Saturday morning at Chub de Wolfe Park downtown, where the city’s fire memorial is located.


Some city leaders even speculate Santiago may be the first Latino fire chief ever among Ohio’s major cities.


“It’s very humbling,” said Chief Santiago. “This is a pretty good department. We’ve got some good people and a lot of talent on this job. To be chosen to be the leader of this organization is truly an honor.”

Luis Santiago

The significance was not lost on anyone that the city’s first African-American Fire Chief Mike Bell, who is now Toledo’s mayor, selected the city’s first Latino fire chief.


“It’s not a matter of whether it’s Latino, black, or white. It’s about the idea of picking the most qualified person,” said Mayor Bell. “Lou Santiago is the best qualified person to run this department right now and I think we’re going to see some great things out of him.”


Mayor Bell explained that as a former fire chief, he has had the benefit of watching Santiago rise through the ranks and had the opportunity to assess the deputy fire chiefs over the past two years as mayor. He stated Santiago always “rose to the top.” He called Santiago the right person at the right time, because of the city’s economic challenges and his quiet, calm leadership style.


“We have to be balanced in the way we provide services and still take care of the city economically,” said the mayor. “I think Lou gets the picture and I’ve just been impressed with his ability to be stable in adverse situations.”


“It’s certainly noteworthy and it’s truly an honor,” said Chief Santiago, a soft-spoken and humble man who often eschews credit. “But my focus and dedication is on our people and towards the public. I just want to provide the best possible service to the public as I can.”


Chief Santiago is a Toledo native who attended St. Patrick of Heatherdowns grade school and St. Francis de Sales High School. He later coached football at his alma mater for 26 seasons. However, the new fire chief’s increased professional duties are forcing him to give up coaching.


Santiago and his wife Ann have been married for 28 years and have three adult children: an 18-year old daughter and two sons, ages 26 and 28. The couple also has two grandchildren.  


Santiago took the oath of office from his former boss, outgoing fire chief Mike Wolever, who retired after 33 years with the Toledo Fire Dept. Wolever also presented Santiago with a fire chief’s badge that was passed down to him from former Chief Bell.


“He’s the right choice,” said Wolever. “Good critical thinker, he has the unique ability to look at problems from several sides. He thinks before he reacts. On a fire, that happens quickly. He’ll do an excellent job. He’ll raise the bar yet again.”


“I look back at the men who have been in this position before me, there are some big shoes to fill,” said Chief Santiago. “I’m going to do whatever I can to support the people who are doing great work every day.”


Diversity in the department became a big issue on Wolever’s watch. Advocates for Basic Legal Equality tried to legally challenge fire recruitment methods, claiming not enough minority candidates were making the cut. However, Wolever successfully led an effort to settle the suit and make changes that better involved the community.


Wolever also became known for appointing more minorities in the upper ranks of the department. Under his leadership, the department had more minority deputy chiefs than whites. Santiago credited Wolever for mentoring and teaching him, preparing him in many ways to be the next fire chief.


“I’m very proud of him—I’m proud of him, I’m proud of the department, and the city, actually,” said Wolever. “A city that allows these historical moments to take place and takes part in them. This is big stuff for everybody.”

“This is huge,” echoed Adam Martínez, a member of Toledo City Council. “This is proof that with hard work and dedication, you can accomplish anything you want. He’s certainly been a beacon in our community and a pacesetter. I expect big things from him.”


Perhaps the Latino community will, too. Santiago admitted he “knows people will be watching.”

But the new fire chief also sees it as a big opportunity to serve as an example to young Latinos.


“There was probably a point in time when something like this for me was unheard of—for a multitude of reasons,” admitted Chief Santiago. “But it’s happened. It’s happened over a number of years. Would I have guessed it would happen? Absolutely not.”

Retired fire chief Mike Wolever

The new fire chief granted a lengthy, one-on-one interview with La Prensa just before his induction ceremony, which was attended by more than 100 friends and family, as well as dozens of fellow firefighters and city officials. Santiago’s oath of office was barely audible to the crowd, gathered under a tent for the ceremony, almost a symbol of his quiet nature. But he was candid during the interview.


“I stand straight and proud because of whom I’m representing. It’s about the people, the people who do the work,” he said. “This department is bigger than any one person.”


Santiago, 47, comes to the job with 27 years of firefighting and incident command experience.  He leads a department of over 500 firefighters as well as civilian dispatchers, arson investigators and administrative staff. Toledo City Council unanimously approved his appointment last week.

The new fire chief stated the public wouldn’t notice much change in how the department does business. But Santiago promised an “in-depth overhaul” of the fire department’s policies and procedures, along with a data-driven analysis of how the department’s manpower and resources are deployed. However, he described his leadership style as “inclusive.”


“I try to involve every resource I possibly can,” said Chief Santiago. “My most important resource, most valuable asset is people. So there is not much that is going to happen without a group of people coming to a conclusion on how to do something.”


Chief Santiago joined the department in May 1984 and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1988, Captain in 1993, Battalion Chief in 2000 and Assistant Chief in 2007. 


During his public remarks following his swearing-in, Santiago stated his initial ambition was to “stay on the street,” but at various points in his career he received “a tap on the shoulder:” encouragement from a superior officer to take the next exam to keep rising in rank, eventually to an administrative position.


“As a Christian man of faith, I’ve come to understand your plan is not your own,” he told the crowd. “I embrace that. Sometimes you’re chosen to execute the plan.”


A strategic incident commander, Santiago oversaw the Toledo Fire Department’s delegation of first responders in the aftermath of the devastating tornado that struck Lake Township in May 2010.  During the recovery effort, he managed confined space search and rescue, the dive search team and fire response coverage.  The new fire chief also served as incident commander for the department’s response to a building collapse last year at the Fremont Co. in Fremont and the ADM grain elevator fire last fall in East Toledo.


Santiago holds various certifications from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Incident Management System, the National Fire Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard.  He additionally serves on the advisory board of the State Fire School at Bowling Green State University, the board of trustees of Knight Academy and is a former trustee of the Toledo Firefighter Health Plan.


Santiago’s accomplishments become even more important when viewed through a wider lens. The Toledo Fire and Rescue Dept. was established in 1835. But the first Latino firefighter was not hired until 1975, when Phil Cervantes transferred from the police dept.—a period of 140 years. Cervantes recently retired, and now his son Phil Jr. is poised to join the upper echelons of the fire service: a path partially paved by his predecessors, which included Santiago.


“I think our whole minority outlook is pretty good,” said the new fire chief. “We strive to stay diverse. It’s a very important part of the department, because that just makes us more effective.”


Chief Santiago pointed out the fire department’s minority ranks can continue to improve if the Latino community continues to mentor its young people—and young Latinos also do their part.


“It takes a lot of work and it’s work that has to happen every day to prepare yourself for something like this,” he said. “You have to be a good citizen. You have to work hard. You have to preserve a good work record. Educate yourself—things along those lines. As long as you stay on a track like that, you’ll succeed at whatever you want to do.”


Even though he has given up coaching football and mentoring young athletes directly, Chief Santiago still plans to set an example for young Latinos and others in the community.


“I realize people are watching and I try to carry myself a certain way because of that,” he said.                              


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Copyright © 1989 to 2011 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 09/27/11 17:54:05 -0700.





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