ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Felipe Hernandez is Rochester’s first Latino fire chief.
Technically, he’s interim chief, but the significance of the promotion is not lost on him. He sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about his career.
(By the way, if you’re interested in becoming a Rochester firefighter, click here.)
Adam Chodak: What did it feel like to be make interim chief, the first Hispanic fire chief?
Felipe Hernandez: It’s hard to put words to it, especially something you pushed for and worked for your entire career, to have it finally happen was a huge moment in my career. It’s very difficult to reach the level of fire chief in any organization, so to finally accomplish that after all the hard work I had put into it was pretty amazing to me.
AC: Did you feel you were representing the Latino community?
FH: I think that goes back a little bit to the beginning, I mean, when I first came to the Rochester Fire Department. There’s never been a first Latino fire officer or Lt. Captain so on and so forth so when I came on I kind of made a challenge. Well, first personally, right? You should always do things for yourself, but also once I saw that I felt that I had the ability to reach those milestones and that’s something that from day one I used to move forward.
About a month ago, I was searching for some documents and I found in 2003 I got an academic achievement award from MCC, and they had a ceremony and they did a little speech about who you were and I didn’t realize it, but when they spoke about me, they asked me what was my next goal in life, and back in 2003 I said I want to be the next Rochester Fire Chief. Back then I only had 3 years in the fire service, especially knowing back then there hadn’t been a first. So back then, I was serious and dedicated to moving up.
AC: I don’t know if many people understand the amount of work that it takes to get the proper credentials to become fire chief…
FH: So I’ve taken many courses, I’m actually designated as a Chief Fire Officer, which currently in the U.S. and Canada, there’s only 1,500 of us that have actually reached that milestone and actually in New York State, there’s only 19.
AC: It’s a lot of work…
FH: It’s a lot of work. So basically in my career I try focus on the four areas of education, training, certification and experience. There’s always a battle — is experience better than education? I think you need both so that’s something throughout the years I strive for all four of those areas.
AC: Do you feel like you’ve bumped up against any challenges along the way?
FH: I would say yes. I mean, I’d say unfortunately in my situation, being a minority, it’s always more challenging. It just seems that when someone in that status moves up, there’s always certain questions about that movement.
I remember a story once where as a firefighter, I was at a kitchen table and there was a deputy chief visiting and there was other minorities sitting around. They were talking about promotions and we were talking about who was going to be next, and then he kind of pointed to me and said, “Well, he’ll have to be next.” It was an awkward moment how that was said, you know? And he said, “No no, I meant you’re going to be up next.”
It just seems that when you’re a minority and you’re getting promoted sometimes they make it feel like it’s for a specific reason. They’re not questioning the nine before me or the nine after me, but for some reason when I get the promotion there’s got to be something to it. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve worked hard in my career to make sure I exceed all of those levels, so no one can really challenge my credentials at this point. But, again, it’s good to be the first to set those standards to make it more easy for others to see.
AC: And we have a huge Latino population, Puerto Rican population in particular. It probably helps that people see someone like you in this kind of position.
FH: You don’t know what you don’t know. So if people don’t see themselves in these high positions, it’s going to be more difficult for them to strive to move into those positions. I think I mentioned a story once where I went to a school program and there was this young Latino child that, he was very eager, seemed excited, and when I finally asked him if he had a question, he asked me if I was a chief. I said yes and he said “I’ve never seen a Latino chief before,” so that’s something that’s important, that you have to represent your community in order to give them the hope that they can be in that position. If you ask the average person who they think of as a fire chief, the first image most likely is going to be an older white male, gray hair, maybe a mustache. That’s what comes to mind. So that’s an image that I think is important to change, especially when you’re trying to have people in your community move up.
AC: What attracted you to the fire service in the first place?
FH: My brother was a police officer. He came up from NYC so of course I wanted to be like my brother, I originally wanted to be a police officer, but coming from NYC to Greece I wanted something to do so I went and I volunteered in the local fire department and from there I just fell in love with the fire service. And since then, the fire service has been my focus.
AC: Is there one call that you remember above all others?
FH: There’s many calls. I think the ability to touch people’s lives is very important. We see people in their worst moments in their lives and just to be able to be part of that and to help them out is just an amazing feeling. Being Latino I originally worked at the Clinton Ave area so once again it was nice when I went on calls I could see people more comfortable working with me. Not that I was doing a better job, but they saw someone like themselves I could see it just made them feel a little more comfortable as I dealt with them.
AC: Anything that you’d like to add that I might have missed?
FH: I just think it’s important for us, we all have a social responsibility in this community to help each other out and I think as leaders we help the community move forward so anything I can do to do that means a lot to me. Just yesterday I was at a Hispanic Heritage event, I think it’s important to do those kinds of things so kids can see you and hopefully encourage them to move up and be in that kind of situation that you are.