Always young: at 64, firefighter source of inexhaustible energy

James Huerta [Victor Moreno]

Nearly 19 years ago, at the age of 46, Maricopa fire engineer James Huerta was no average weirdo who passed the candidate’s physical agility test.

The eight-part CPAT is a rigorous challenge to show if a candidate has the physical strength and stamina to meet the demands of being a firefighter.

Firefighting is really for young men and women. By the time they turn 46, many firefighters are thinking about retirement or have already hung up their boots.

For Huerta, it was the start of the next chapter in his life. He had been training and preparing for eight months before heading to Phoenix to take the CPAT for the first time.

But watching other firefighters in their late teens and early 20s struggle with the test got Huerta thinking.

“I’m lined up with about 60 young kids of different sizes, nationalities and so on,” Huerta recalled. “And I think, ‘What am I up against? I see these children pass in front of me and they fail; muscular young men fail…and I wonder if I’ve prepared enough.

While other candidates at the physical peak of their lives had youth on their side, Huerta had something that couldn’t be measured: determination.

After spending most of his working life earning a lot of money as a plumber, he was on a mission. He realized that the trade would one day exhaust his body and he would have nothing to show for it – and no means to care for his family.

James Huerta takes a photo with Zollee Hicks, one of the twins (the other is named Zoe) that the 575 Motor Crew helped deliver in 2013. As the mother of the twins, Sherese was driven by her uncle and her aunt, it was clear she needed immediate help. The crew met them at Circle K at the corner of John Wayne Parkway and Smith-Enke Road, where firefighter/paramedic Josh Eads, now team captain, helped Hicks deliver the first twin. To his surprise, the girl came out feet first. The baby was not only by the seat, but also had the umbilical cord around the neck. The second baby was born – again feet first – en route to Chandler Regional Medical Center. The twins reunited with the 575 engine crew in 2017. [file photo]

“I realized the other guys had all this common sense, but what they didn’t have, I had the motivation,” said Huerta, who turns 65 this month. “That was the whole idea of ​​why I changed careers – to get a pension for me and my family.”

In Huerta’s mind, it all boiled down to one day – CPAT day – and he wasn’t looking for any moral victory. Huerta excelled in events, finishing at Level 1, the highest ranking a candidate can achieve.

It wasn’t the last day Huerta had to take the CPAT. He must have done it many other times in his 50s and early 60s, and his ranking remains at level 1 or 2, meaning peak physical condition.

But on this day 19 years ago, one event, the stair mill, was particularly memorable.

The endurance measuring equipment is reminiscent of a StairMaster. Candidates must stay there for an extended period.

“I went through that thing in a fire,” Huerta recalled. “I came out at the end, gave it my all, and the supervisor asked me if I was upset and why I was so angry.”

Huerta explained to the supervisor that he was not crazy. In fact, anger had nothing to do with it. He was looking to make a statement. He didn’t just want to pass. He wanted to dominate the test and the equipment.

“I’m here to smash your stuff,” Huerta told the overseer.

time to change
Huerta has always been a forward-looking man. Plumbing was the profession that fed his family and kept a roof over his head. But at 40 and only decades away from retirement, her interests began to shift. He was looking for a job that would provide him with a solid retirement plan, in this case a pension, and at the same time make a difference in the lives of others.

Firefighters and other public service workers receive a pension on retirement and receive it until their death. And in some cases, their loved ones receive it after their death.

People don’t usually think much about it, but plumbing is a physically demanding job. Plumbers crawl on their hands and knees, contorting their bodies in odd positions to reach pipes under sinks or in crawl spaces.

James Huerta says his wife Beth is the love of his life and served as a guide as he moved from one chapter of his life to the next. [submitted]

“The plumbing was going to kill my body as I got older,” Huerta said. “My parents, my father, my uncles, my brothers all did it and they all became very weak, and they couldn’t live long.

“It’s not that firefighting got any easier, but I just knew I had to turn my life around. It was a change that gave me the opportunity to achieve the goals I had for myself and my family.

Huerta knew the challenges his age would present as a first responder, but he stuck to it.

“I thought people were going to tell me I’m too old to start,” Huerta said. “But I was going to give it a shot. They can’t discriminate my age if I can do the job.

Inspired by a new path forward, Huerta studied at night to earn his certifications while working his plumbing job during the day.

“I kissed my wife and my children to wish them good night, then I went to school,” he recalls. “Two days a week, I go to school in the evening, I study, then I go back to work the next day. And that’s how I finished my semester work and got some certifications.

But even with paper in hand, Huerta still had work to do. He needed to learn other skills. He volunteered as a firefighter and worked on an ambulance crew.

“I wanted to be on a truck,” Huerta said. “I wanted to be on an engine.”

“I had the opportunity to be in an ambulance first, and I grabbed it with no questions asked,” Huerta said, noting that firefighters who are first on the scene often deal with injuries to people. people.

It was a methodical move by Huerta that pays off to this day.

Ben Blanco, who is part of Huerta’s team as a paramedic, noticed his colleague’s bedside manner.

“He’s really good at looking after families,” Blanco said. “He goes above and beyond to recognize if there is a family member who has a medical emergency and provide an update on each member of that household, help them or just make them feel comfortable. It can be something as simple as giving a child a fire helmet or stickers.

“He just goes the extra step.”

James Huerta, far right, stands with his teammates inside Fire Station 575. Left to right are Paramedic Ben Blanco, Capt. Josh Eads and Firefighter Anthony Stimac. [Victor Moreno]

A man of character

Huerta is not the leader of his team. But if you’ve spent time with the man, it’s obvious that he sets an example and the strength of his character.

Josh Eads, the team captain, rose through the ranks, starting as a firefighter on Huerta’s team.

“I started working as a firefighter under him,” Eads said. “Jimmy has been an engineer for a long time and I learned a lot from him. I give that experience a lot of credit for where I am today.

The best leaders are often the best followers.

“What I appreciate and respect about Jimmy is that he’s older than me,” Eads said. “He could be my father. But he’s humble and respectful that I’m half his age and I’m the captain. He might be unhappy about it. But he’s not and we have such a good working relationship.

Huerta accepted.

“There’s a lot of respect earned and a lot of respect given,” he said.

Team firefighter Anthony Stimac has worked with Huerta for nearly 15 years.

“We had some crazy calls together,” Stimac said. “There is a connection there. We are a family. I call him dad and he calls me son. Whenever I needed anything he was there. If I have a plumbing problem at home, he comes to fix it and doesn’t look for anything. He does it out of the goodness of his heart. He and his wife are both like that and that’s why they are so respected in the community.

Blanco only worked with Huerta for about a year but feels a strong bond.

“He is a man of his word and even if that word is harsh,” Blanco said. “And I think as a society we miss that very much. Many men don’t take the time to correct young people. In my experience, he’s a guy who can tell me personally when I need to do better.

“You can tell when he has something important to say because he will start with ‘Mijo’, an endearing Spanish term meaning ‘my son’,” Blanco added. “He won’t say that if he doesn’t feel like you’ll take it the right way. But when he says “mijo,” you know everything he has to say next is important.

Huerta values ​​relationships, especially the one with his wife, Beth, who works at Global Water as a customer service supervisor. The two have been married for 24 years.

“He’s the most important person in my life,” Huerta said. “Beth has been with me through thick and thin. She encouraged me to take the path that I have. Without her, I can’t even imagine where I would be today.

The next chapter
Huerta is in his 19th year of service with the Maricopa Fire Department, which means a year from now he will give what amounts to five years’ notice of retirement, or as it’s called, “The Drop.” . After giving his notice, he can decide to retire at any time during the next five years. If he works five more years, his retirement becomes automatic.

He’ll eventually retire, but don’t expect Huerta to find a rocking chair and a porch anytime soon. He is still in top physical condition. On his last CPAT test, he came away with a level 1 status.

“I’m not going to retire and sit and think about the days gone by,” Huerta said. “I will continue to truck. I consider it the next chapter.

Huerta plays for a semi-pro softball team that travels around the country. And although this team is made up of players his own age, they still regularly compete against younger teams.

Huerta also plans to work to some degree. This could include a job with a utility company or returning to plumbing in a consulting role.

“I’m already thinking about it,” Huerta said. “There are young people in the profession that I would like to help. When I arrived, someone was there to help me teach myself and make me who I am.

Huerta will continue to work, live and play.

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘when are you going to stop playing ball?’ Probably when I can’t see the ball or catch the ball. If I get hurt playing ball, then, hey, I have to start thinking about something else.

READ MORE: Huerta’s battle against COVID-19.

This story was first published in the March issue of InMaricopa magazine.

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