For the time being, Lieutenant Miguel Baez has traded in his protective “turnout” gear and firefighters helmet for a telephone and computer as one of two recruiters for the Oklahoma City Fire Department.
His daily life now is mostly on the phone and computer making new connections with high school students and people currently in the military as prospects for the next generations of firefighters.
July, 2019 he was the first naturalized citizen of Mexican decent to promote to lieutenant in OKCFD. And, his superiors are sold on his abilities.
“He’s not only well-connected in the Hispanic community but he’s well-connected throughout the entire community,” said Battalion Chief Benny Fulkerson, in charge of all public information for the department.
“He’s crucial to our ultimate goal of having a diverse fire department because you need people who can connect with different cultures and backgrounds.”
In a recent interview with Free Press, Baez said it’s a big change from his days on a fire crew – the older term is “company” – responding to fires and all sorts of other calls from Station No. 1 where he was last working shifts and responding to alarms.
Station No. 1 is in the center of the city where firefighters still slide down poles from living quarters above to crew the engines and rescue/ladder units in lanes below.
It’s a life of sudden but prepared-for calls where each crew is expected to mount up and have wheels turning within 45 seconds of the alarm first sounding.
As we stood near an engine in Station No. 1, Baez said he misses the action of being on a fire crew.
“This is what I signed up for: being in the field and being in the action and being on the fires and being on the adrenaline and with the guys and everything. That was one of my biggest challenges.” He said that being in recruitment is “a completely different thing.”
“And that’s the beauty about the fire department. You know, we have many areas where a firefighter can work.”
The life is all about retraining and learning new roles throughout one’s career.
The administrative offices for the department are the west side of the building most of the public thinks of as Station No. 1.
So, Baez has his desk along with the lead recruiter, Major Fred “Tink” Collins in the Human Resources offices only yards away from his previously assigned station. But, the differences in his work are large.
“It was challenging at first because we did not have a recruitment department,” Baez told us. “And we don’t like to stay behind in anything.”
“Our Chief [Richard A. Kelley] is very proactive in everything that we do, and the recruitment department was one of his main goals.”
Baez now communicates his love of the life and the satisfaction of constantly meeting new challenges to people who can become the next generation of Oklahoma City firefighters.
Unlike the OKC Police Department, applicants can be chosen for the OKCFD academy as young as 18.
But, that doesn’t mean they have to give up going to college. Baez said that the fire department has a program that pays for their firefighters to go to college as they work. It’s a perk many don’t know about.
He said the biggest challenge for the broader population still in high school was communicating the value of hard work and accomplishment.
But, we asked what have been the biggest challenges to reaching out to Latinos in Oklahoma City.
“The fire department in Mexico is nothing like it is here,” said Baez. “So, the parents who come from Mexico associate fire service with limited resources, no-good salaries, poor conditions.”
“As a parent coming here, you don’t want that for your kids. You want them to have a better life.”
And in Hispanic culture, what parents think and what family traditions are carry a lot of weight in a young person’s decisions, said Baez.
So, the effort is to help Latinos in Oklahoma City understand that the fire service is well-funded with good pay and training. It has a level of respect they don’t see in Mexico.
But, the military is another source of recruitment for the department with Fort Sill Army Post in Lawton and Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City.
“They go into the military at a very young age, so when they retire from the military they are not ready to retire from work,” Baez said. “So, there is an easy transition for them to come into the fire department and we make those connections with them.”
Baez is a naturalized citizen of the United States having successfully gone through the many steps and tests it takes to achieve that status.
He was born and raised in Tampico, Mexico, a thriving industrial city with a large sea port and the home of many manufacturing firms.
He graduated from University of Tamaulipas (UAT) in 2002 with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a focus on international business.
He was on his way as a businessman working for Dupont, an international company with a large manufacturing presence in Tampico.
But, he arrived in the U.S. by way of family connections when his sister fell in love with and married an American citizen from Oklahoma City.
When Baez came to Oklahoma City to visit her they were shopping in Dillards when he saw who he now describes as “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
The short version of that story is that he and Alisa got married but not until he promised her father that he would not move their only child to Mexico after the wedding. Instead, he chose to come to the U.S. legally through several stages of immigration that led to his becoming a naturalized citizen.
They have been married now for 13 years and have two children.
How to connect
If you are thinking about joining the fire service or just curious about it, you can email Lt. Baez at miguel (dot) baez (at) okc.gov.
Or you can email Major Collins at fred (dot) collins (at) okc.gov.
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