Battalion Chief Joaquin Colon is not the average employee at the Philadelphia Fire Department. But it’s not just because of his high rank.
Colon is the only Latino in the city to ever receive the ranking of battalion chief. The 55-year-old Colon was promoted to the position on Dec. 16 after serving for 29 years in the department. He is now at Engine 50 on Park Avenue and West Cambria Street in North Philadelphia.
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“My parents raised me not to settle for mediocrity. If you can do better, do better,” Colon said.
Colon was a firefighter for 13 years until he started pursuing promotional opportunities within the department.
As battalion chief, Colon’s primary concern is safety. He is in charge of determining how much help is needed on the scene of a fire.
“If I see something going wrong, I correct it.”
Battalion chief is the third-highest ranking in the department’s hierarchy. Colon is one of two Latinos who have ever had a position higher than a lieutenant.
Colon said he recognizes the need for more Latino representation in the fire department.
“I think it’s in direct correlation to the recruitment efforts. Sometimes they [Latinos] just don’t get the word,” Colon said.
Colon is currently the president of the Spanish American Professional Firefighters Association. The group promotes Latinos to apply for positions and supports currently employed Latinos in the fire department.
“We’d set up tables in different neighborhoods where there was a strong presence of Latinos like Fifth Street in order to get more Latinos on the job and get the word out,” Colon said.
Recruitment is just one way the fire department is trying to increase Latino participation.
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said in the past the department only recruited Latinos for a short period of time but now recruiting efforts last all year.
“I think that this recruitment is probably the one of the best recruitments that we’ve had as far as the Latino and the minority population, “ Ayers said. “We do have to do a better job and part of that is a continued outreach.”
Noel Bermudez, a Latino firefighter who works with Colon, said Colon’s promotion was “well past due and well deserved.” He said that Colon’s promotion inspired him to start studying to become a lieutenant.
Another firefighter, Javier Handle, said, “He is a motivation.”
Even though Colon is a motivator for many Latinos, the population is still underrepresented. In fact, only 6 percent of fire department employees are Latino.
Dan Gutierrez, 40, a barbershop owner near Fifth and West Cambria streets, said, “Historically we [Latinos] have been downplayed, it’s nothing new.”
Despite doubts, many said having a Latino in a high-ranking position is a motivation and something worth celebrating.
Thirty-three-year-old Adam Perez said, “There are a lot of people in the community that can’t speak English. I really think it does help a lot.”