Albuquerque’s fire department and school district have combined forces to encourage more firefighters. - Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque’s fire department and school district have combined forces to encourage more firefighters.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Gene Gallegos, left, chats with senior Juliana Hielkema, an aspiring firefighter who wants to increase the representation of women in the department, at Manzano High School on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Zeke Estrada, 17, has known he wanted to be a firefighter for years.

After studying to become an EMT at the University of New Mexico, the Manzano High School senior plans to immediately turn around and become a firefighter. But in order to do that, he said he needs some guidance on the best way forward.

That’s where the Albuquerque Public Schools and Albuquerque Fire Rescue’s new ambassador program is stepping in.

“That’s all I really want to do, is just get into that and (help) people and … (get) a good job” Estrada told the Journal, adding that he hopes the mentorship program will help him learn “the easiest way to get into firefighting.”

Over the past semester, APS and the fire department have been running the program at all of the district’s comprehensive high schools. The program, which officials highlighted at a news conference Wednesday, aims to place firefighters in the schools they graduated from, which helps in tailoring their advice.

“The hope is that one day … these young minds will want to join the public safety teams for the City of Albuquerque — and most importantly, possibly Albuquerque Fire Rescue,” Fire Chief Gene Gallegos said.

For some students, learning about being a firefighter helps them explore options for their futures. For others, such as Estrada, it’s about advancing what they’re already thinking about doing.

Capt. Chris Sotelo, a 15-year veteran of the fire department and a Manzano alum, said he strives to make one-on-one connections with his students and be a positive role model for them. He speaks jovially and candidly with them, cracking jokes and asking about their grades while not-so-subtly plugging the fire department as a career choice.

“I’m proud to do it,” he said of being the school’s fire department ambassador. “Growing up, we always think of that time in the future where we’ll have an opportunity to give back. Well, this is my time.”

Manzano High School seniors Isaiah Senior, left, and Juliana Hielkema watch as Albuquerque Fire Rescue Capt. Chris Sotelo speaks about being their mentor at a news conference Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

While Sotelo’s efforts may seem small in scale, they’re already paying off for some of his students.

Senior Juliana Hielkema, for example, said while being a firefighter is in her blood, a visit from Sotelo to her class was what won her over on firefighting as a career choice.

“His passion just really spoke to me,” she said. “I feel like this would be great for me, because I want to do something important and impactful.”

Part of that, she said, is getting more women into the department. In 2021, there were only 39 women firefighters in AFR, compared with 676 men.

“I want to change that,” Hielkema said.

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