After 30 years of service with the Kissimmee Fire Department, Deputy Fire Chief of Operations Eric Cruz, will be retiring on Sept. 30.
“I’m just grateful. I learned a lot. I made a lot of good friends. I did a lot of good things for the community. I have no regrets,” Cruz said.
Before settling in Kissimmee, Cruz grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and later in Puerto Rico. He moved to California for college, after which he joined the U.S. Army, where he served for three years. Afterward, he moved to Miami where his parents were then living. Then, a high school friend who had relocated to Central Florida, convinced Cruz to move to Kissimmee. He began working for Bright House Networks (now Spectrum) installing home cable. One house on his route was the home to two firefighters, who, he says, thought he was personable and had skills valuable to the fire department. They told him of a minority grant program and suggested he apply to the KFD. He did, but there were challenges and delays throughout his journey to becoming a firefighter.
Months passed before he heard back from the city of Kissimmee. Then, at the fire academy, a sobering accident during mid-term practicals claimed the life of a classmate, causing him to question whether he should continue to pursue a career with the potential for such peril. He had a childhood dream to grow up and be a firefighter, and after careful consideration he decided to continue his quest. Also, he states that during his fire academy and EMT training, some administrators had expressed doubts as whether he would pass the exam. A self-avowed lifelong learner who values continuing education, he said he was determined to prove them wrong. He scored a 94 on his exam and graduated from the fire academy. Unfortunately, on graduation day, he was informed that the county was forming its own fire department and the position he had trained for was no longer available.
Finally, a year after graduation, the fire department called, and on July 19, 1989, Cruz became a firefighter with the KFD.
Cruz recalled some memorable events from his career with the KFD. In 1998, he and his partner were headed to the Central Florida Fire Academy near Oakridge Road in Orlando. Two cars, apparently street racing, sped past them. Soon thereafter, they saw a huge cloud of dust - the racers had clipped a car, sending it upside down into a water-filled ditch.
“This lady came out screaming! She was yelling because her baby was still in the car,” Cruz said. “So, my partner and I got out of the truck and went towards the ditch. The car was submerged in about five or six feet of water. We went under (the water) to see if we could find the baby, but the water was very murky.”
He added that they enlisted the help of some nearby utility workers to roll the car over and out of the water. They were then able to release the baby from the car seat, saving the child’s life.
On another occasion, he and his crew faced a fire that engulfed a man’s backyard, trees, and house, caused by the explosion of an old propane tank the man had been trying to convert into a barbecue grill. The house was also fueled by propane, and Cruz and his crew were trying to put out the fire before that propane tank could explode. They had made their way around the back of the house, and just as he realized they couldn’t get close enough with the fire hose to cool the propane tank. Jim Walls, now KFD fire chief, and crew, came to their aid and they were able to conquer the fire.
He credited much of his success in his career to having a great team.
“We’ve got each other’s backs,” he said.
When Cruz was promoted to the rank of deputy fire chief of operations, his first project was to work with the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) lieutenant to develop the KFD’s decontamination policy, complete with training videos, for the cancer initiative. Firefighters are exposed to many toxins on the job that are potential carcinogens, and though there is recent legislation designed to assist firefighters who get cancers presumed to be caused by on-the-job exposure, Walls, who assigned Cruz to the project, said that the fire department’s focus is on cancer prevention. Cancer is a topic personal to Cruz, as his wife, Sylvia, has been battling the disease for some time now.
When asked about his plans, post-retirement, Cruz said that he will be spending additional time with his wife, meeting whatever challenges arise. He also wants to become more involved with his church, the Family Christian Center, in Clermont. He is considering several professional options, but said, “My priority right now is serving my God, and helping my wife get back to the way she was. Everything else can eventually fall into place.”
Walls, who came up through the ranks with Cruz, said, “He’s one of our most respected guys in the fire service. You can go and talk to any of them (KFD firefighters) and you will never hear a negative word said about him. He’s got great character. Probably one of the most honest, trustworthy guys we’ve ever had. He’s a great friend and employee. I just thank him for his service to the Kissimmee Fire Department.”