Rochester Fire Department Chief Will Jackson, whose family helped break the color barrier, will retire at the end of February.
Jackson served as chief for two years, capping 25 years of service to the RFD.
He will be succeeded by Felipe Hernandez Jr., the first Latino chief of RFD.
Mayor Lovely Warren, who announced Jan. 14 that Hernandez would be interim chief until at least after the November election for mayor and City Council, said she believed he was the first Latino chief of a major department in the state.
“I am proud to be the first Latino to become chief of the Rochester Fire Department,” said Hernandez, currently executive deputy chief. “I usually don’t talk about those types of accomplishments, but I think this time it needs to be noted. The Rochester Fire Department has been in service for over 150 years, now this is the first time this is occurring. Yes this is a good moment. It’s a proud moment, but it’s a reminder we still have a lot of work that needs to be done as we continue to move forward and bring everyone together.”
Jackson his own history among “firsts” in the RFD. Jackson said his father took the oath in 1964 to help break the color barrier. Jackson said that when he joined the RFD in 1996, there was one other minority and no females. Currently, RFD has more than 20 minorities and women.
Last year’s fire department recruit class was the most diverse of any in the department. Of the 31 who started training, 13 were Black and 10 were Latino. There were two females, one of whom was Latino.
Jackson said he’d miss the adrenaline rush when responding to a call, not knowing what he’d find. He remembered his first call as an EMT, responding on Mother’s Day to a woman who was not breathing. “She had all her family over,” Jackson said. “We were able to bring her back. That sold me. This is the job for me.”
He said, “The joy of knowing that you can make someone’s back day better will leave a huge void. … I was taught that every person must know his or her limitations. I know the time is right for me to let the future leaders have their turn at the helm.”
For the past two years, Jackson has mentored Hernandez and said he has been impressed by his eagerness to learn and dedication to the personnel in the department.
Hernandez joined the Rochester Fire Department as a firefighter in 2000. He served as a lieutenant in the training division, as a lieutenant in the line division, as captain in the line division and as a deputy chief of the emergency management, training and line divisions. Since April 2019, he has served as deputy chief, second in command of the entire RFD.
Hernandez said he was inspired to start a career in public safety by his brother, a Rochester police officer. He said that when he went on calls, he noticed other Latinos gravitated toward him. “It wasn’t that I was doing a better job than the other firefighters. It’s not about that. I those moments of crisis, they had someone they could relate to. That’s the importance of having your department represent your community. You need to have that connection with the public.”
Hernandez recalled that during his interview for the rank of lieutenant, he was asked his long-term goals.
“I told him, ‘One day, I want to be fire chief,’ ” Hernandez said. “That’s something that, to be honest, you don’t hear at such an early time. I always had the vision of wanting to be at that level.”
Hernandez said he saw at that time that he was the first Latino lieutenant.
A couple of years ago, Rochester Fire Department’s Felipe Hernandez was visiting a school and talking to students. One youngster seemed particularly excited.
When it came time for questions, Hernandez asked the boy if he had anything to say.
“ ‘Are you a chief?’ ” Hernandez remembered him asking.
“I said, ‘I’m one of the chief officers,’” Hernandez replied.
The boy was wide-eyed. “ ‘Wow. I didn’t know we had a Latino chief.’ ”
“I think for our community, for Latinos and Latinas to see future success, they need to see themselves in that position,” Hernandez said.
Warren said Hernandez’s promotion shows the city’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and the need to develop career pathways.
“One thing we have been intentional about is looking within our own City Hall staff to say who is ready, who can we be grooming in order to lead,” Warren said. “When we talk about equity and recovery is making sure that we not only create the stairway but we have people who are willing and able to walk that stairway to success and that the doors are intentionally left open for them to walk through.”