Edward Casares Jr. came to Connecticut from Chicago, Danny Torres was born in the Bronx and Rafael Zayas is a native of Puerto Rico.
But by the end of the 20th century, all three had become part of the same “family” of service, albeit in different cities, donning helmets and protective suits, pulling hose, checking for hazardous materials, sharing meals with their comrades and leading people to safety.
They became city firefighters, embracing a vocation, which except for Casares, who retired two years ago as chief in Hartford, they continue to pursue. Their motivation includes that their jobs enable them to support themselves and their families, but equally if not more importantly, provides an opportunity to help their communities, particularly the growing Latino populations in the state’s major cities.
“It (helping the community) is the most important thing,” said Zayas, who joined the New Haven Fire Department 18 years ago and is currently president of the New Haven Hispanic Firefighter Association.
This feeling was echoed by Torres, who spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and has been a firefighter in Meriden for 31 years. “I love my job because it lets me serve the public,” he said.
Torres, who is bilingual, added that in Meriden where more than 30 percent of the residents are Hispanic, “the people I serve are my people.”
For these firefighters, decades of firefighting cultivated a recognition that in cities like Hartford, where nearly nearly half the population is Latino, it is vital to have people in emergency services who can connect with the diverse population.
“You have a better delivery of services if you look like and speak the language of the people you are serving,” said Casares, who rose through the ranks to become a fire marshal and then the city’s first Latino fire chief from 2010 to 2013.
“When people (at an emergency call) see someone who looks like them, it makes a big difference,” said Casares who is of Puerto Rican descent.
However, the importance of having fire departments that reflect their populations was not as obvious 40 years ago, and for many young Latinos a career as a firefighter seemed almost inaccessible.
Casares, who has mentored and guided Latinos into his profession as well as hiring many when he was chief, admits that as a
young man living in Hartford he knew little about how to become a firefighter.
What inspired the future chief and created the opportunity to become a firefighter was a tragedy that occured in 1979. 12-year-old Julio Lozada died after being trapped in a collapsed garage in Hartford’s Clay Hill section. The boy’s Hispanic neighbors tried to alert firefighters that he was under the rubble but none of the responders spoke Spanish and when they realized what was wrong it essentially was too late and the boy died from his injuries.
The ensuing uproar resulted in the city hiring 25 new firefighters who spoke Spanish, including Casares and the current chief, Carlos Huertas.
The new firefighters went through a period of assimilation and during their probationary year generally tried to “stay under the radar,” Casares recalled. There was a mutual learning process between the old and new firefighters with the former even perplexed by what to feed the latter at the fire stations.
Now, he said, Hispanic food is the norm in firehouse kitchens.
In 1982, the Hartford Society of Latin American Firefighters was formed and has since helped the Latino contingent, which now includes about 90 men and four women, or about 30 percent of the department, Casares said, deal with day to day issues. “We discuss what we can do to improve ourselves and the department,” the former chief said.
Zayas who was recently promoted to lieutenant said he became interested in firefighting when a family friend, who was older than himself, joined the fire department. “Seeing another Latino become a firefighter let me know know that I could do it,” the New Haven resident said.
Additional impetus, Zayas said, came from another friend who had taken up this career told him it was rewarding to help others.
At age 22, Zayas took the test for the job and passed, beginning what he calls “the best experiences of his life.” Today, the department has 40-45 Hispanics, he said, including Yaniris Cardona, a highly regarded athlete from Puerto Rico who last year became the city’s first Latina firefighter.
For Torres, the motivation to pursue his career came from having a cousin become a firefighter in the Bronx. When he was hired in 1984, he became the sixth Hispanic to serve in the Meriden department, he said. Meriden currently has about 100 firefighters of which seven are Latino, said Torres, who has risen to the rank of lieutenant. He said that the competition to become a firefighter in Meriden is “fierce.”
Getting a clear fix on how many Latinos are firefighters in Connecticut is difficult because there are more than 300 departments in the state, Casares said. Looking at paid departments, he estimated that between Waterbury, Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, there are about 200 Latinos employed.
Many of the Latino firefighters also are involved in activities such as fundraising for scholarships and various charitable entities as well as teaching schoolchildren and less fortunate residents about fire safety. “When we leave the firehouse the job doesn’t stop,” Zayas said. “Community service continues,” he said.
This commitment includes raising funds for the Augosto Rodriguez Scholarship named after the Civil War veteran who in 1965 became the first Puerto Rican in the New Haven Fire Department.
The Hartford Society of Latin American Firefighters’s non-work activities include supporting the Julio Lozada Foundation which on Saturday, Oct. 24, will hold an awards dinner and present three scholarships to help young people attend college.
For Torres, helping the state’s Hispanic community includes advocating for its concerns as a member of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
The worst part of being a firefighter, Zayas said is “the sense of helplessness when something (bad) happens and you can’t change the situation and you feel you could have done something different, even though you couldn’t, to change the outcome.”
Casares said the toughest part of his job was notifying next of kin when there has been a fatality. “We are exposed to human suffering every day.” As chief, he said, he found himself under additional stress. “I did not want to let my community down,” he said.
The trauma and danger involved in the job is one reason firefighters are paid well and have good pensions, Casares said.
In 2014 there were 4,425 career firefighters in Connecticut, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the average salary was $60,340, about $2,500 higher for fire inspectors and investigators. For the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area, the average firefighter pay was calculated at $63,970, with lower amounts for the Hartford-West Hartford area ($61,920), New Haven ($60,870) and Waterbury (58,770).
In 2012, Stamford reported that 155 of its fire department employees earned over $100,000, a figure inflated by overtime which the city subsequently endeavored to reduce.
But beyond the compensation and a commitment to help their communities, there is something else that motivates people like Torres, Zayas and Casares to embrace firefighting. It is the camaraderie.
“I love the guys and the friendships,” Torres said. Zayas said, “We are a family. This is not just a job.” Casares said he “really loved coming to work each day. … I worked with a group of folks who are top notch, funny and great cooks.”
Casares credits one of these firehouse chefs, Ray Woods, who passed away in 2010, with upping his weight and that of many of the men at his station.
Zayas is another firefighter who knows his way around the kitchen. He recently participated in a cook-off against city police to raise funds for a charity. On the New Haven Hispanic Firefighter Association’s Facebook page following comment appeared: “They said the cops won, however, all our food was devoured … I demand a recount.”