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Fireman Helps Bridge Gap
by Sean Mussenden
January 21, 2001
PHOTO: JULIE FLETCHER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
Yeah, Raymond Ramirez rescued a man trapped in the floorboards of a blazing mobile home, then single-handedly put out the fire.
And, sure, minutes later he pulled a police officer from a burning car.
Heroic acts? They were certainly worthy enough for him to be named Volusia County firefighter of the year earlier this month. But plenty of firefighters risk their lives every day.
What makes Ramirez, raised in Puerto Rico and one of the first full-time Hispanic firefighters in the county, so valuable is his ability to connect with the largely Hispanic community that he serves, County Fire Chief Jim Tauber said.
"A lot of times, when we encounter the Spanish-speaking community, they are reluctant to embrace us," Tauber said. "But Ray has the ability to talk to them and gain their confidence -- and help them be safer."
It's no accident that Ramirez landed at Station 44 in tiny Pierson, where he has been one of two full-time firefighters since 1995.
This tiny town in northern Volusia County is home to a large population of Hispanics.
"It's a close-knit little town," Ramirez said, and he gets to know more and more of the Hispanic population every day, dispensing fire-safety tips in Spanish as he goes.
"I made it one of my key points to help the Hispanic community," he said.
Like any firefighter, he mainly battles blazes and responds to medical emergencies. But in down times he does anything but rest. Often, he translates at crime or accident scenes for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office or the Florida Highway Patrol.
"The worst thing that can happen is to have 10 to 15 people gathered around you, and you can't speak their language," Ramirez said.
Tauber said that in those situations, Ramirez's ties to the Hispanic community transcend language. Ramirez's presence helps them feel at ease.
Ramirez downplays that notion. "When you talk to a person and you are able to give them assurance, it doesn't matter if you're dark or light," he said.
Translating in emergency situations offered Ramirez an entry point into firefighting. Now 39, Ramirez was born in New York City, but moved to Puerto Rico at age 5 or 6. He returned in 1989, moving to Altamonte Springs where he happened into helping firefighters translate at emergency scenes.
"They encouraged me to become a firefighter," he said. He took classes in the early 1990s, and became a "floater" with Volusia County Fire Services in 1993 prior to landing the permanent job in Pierson in 1995.