Meriden’s first Latina deputy fire chief breaks stereotypes

MERIDEN — Cristina Schoeck is the first Latina and the first female to earn the position of deputy fire chief since the Meriden Fire Department’s inception in 1851.

“It’s really good for young women to be able to see that there are females in the fire service, and that we can move up the ranks,” said Schoeck, who was born to Cuban parents. “Same thing with the Hispanic community, they can see that, especially here in America where we have a large population of Latinos, that the fire service is a good career and this is something that they should consider coming into.”

Schoeck was sworn in during a ceremony at the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center on Oct. 14. Schoeck is one of five Latinos employed at Meriden’s Fire Department. Over the course of the department’s history, no Latinos had previously achieved the rank of deputy chief, assistant chief or captain, she said.

Nationally, the National Fire Protection Association estimated the United States had 1,041,200 career and volunteer firefighters in 2020. Of those, 9 percent were female. Within Meriden’s Fire Department, Schoeck is the only female firefighter and only second in the department’s 170-year history, coming after the now-retired fire lieutenant Maggie Bender, who was Meriden’s first female firefighter.

“You can do anything you want,” Schoeck said. “I think there’s an unconscious bias of what we teach people is what is appropriate. I’ve had people come up to me saying, ‘I did not know a girl can be a firefighter.’ There’s still people who believe that.”

Schoeck said though she is one of two females in the department’s history, she never felt out of place because the department heavily relies more on its employees’ “strengths” and “teamwork.” For example, Schoeck knows Spanish and can translate for residents who may only speak Spanish, which is just one of her many strengths.

“Meriden Fire Department always looks at new probationary members and there’s two questions: ‘Can you do the job? And can I trust you when we’re in it together?’” Schoeck said. “So if you could do the job, and if they can trust you, they treat you like you’re equal. So, Meriden has always been a great place for that.”

Desire to help people

Schoeck was born in New York City and lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood before moving to Long Island and eventually Connecticut.

She said although the state is not as diverse as New York, she loves that Meriden has long had a sizable Hispanic population. Latinos make up 36.6% of the Meriden population as of October 2021, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“When I was hired, there were several Hispanic members, who always welcomed me,” she said. “Meriden has been pretty good about that type of diversity with Hispanics. But it’s nice to see everyone, you know, moving up the ranks, knowing that it doesn’t matter where you come from or your background.”

Schoeck didn’t always have the desire to work as a firefighter, but always had the desire to help people in need, starting her professional career in emergency services and going to college to become a respiratory therapist. In 1994, during her time at Stony Brook University, she joined the collegiate ambulance. She started as an EMT, became a driver, and crew chief, and eventually became chief of training.

While she was still in college, she moved off campus and joined the volunteer fire department, which marked the beginning of her fire service career. When she later moved to Connecticut, she remained a volunteer firefighter in Westfield, a section of Middletown, while continuing in her medical path as a respiratory therapist, working in surgical and neuro-intensive care units.

In March 2002, she became a full-time firefighter, switching career paths to work at the Meriden Fire Department. She was later promoted to lieutenant in April 2018 and then earned the rank of the department’s training and safety officer before earning the rank of deputy chief.

“I didn’t realize that this was even an option for me,” Schoeck said. “It wasn’t until I got involved in the ambulance corps that I started realizing that ‘oh, there was a fire department.’ And then once I was volunteering, I realized I really loved doing the work as a firefighter.”

After 20 years in the field

Deputy Chief Ryan Dunn has always worked closely with the 20-year veteran, as he started at the fire department in 1998, two years before Schoeck was hired as the second female in the department’s history. They were both assigned to the same work group, initiating their bond in the early days of their professional careers as firefighters.

“Right away she established herself as a skilled firefighter,” Dunn said. “You know, we were both working as peers ... but it was one of those things where we really quickly became friends and recognized that she’s a really, really good firefighter. So we are happy to have her and build throughout our years in the fire department. It’s a great thing to have her next door.”

Now, as the department’s deputy chief, she helps maintain facilities, overseeing the personal protective equipment, and conducts biannual inspections to make sure that everyone in the department is protected. In her role, she is responsible for administrative work, making sure that the department is keeping up with its training, state requirements and needs.

“There’s also a lot to learn,” Schoeck said. “These last two weeks have been a whirlwind of learning everything that I have to do and then jumping right in. The department has several projects that they are involved in and I’m jumping in and trying to catch up and to be a part of those projects as we move forward.”

When Schoeck is not working at the fire department, she serves as a fire service instructor at the Eastern Connecticut Fire School, an instructor at CPR Training Professionals. She also volunteers over the summer at New Hampshire Fire Academy’s Camp Fully Involved, which prioritizes encouraging young girls between the ages of 14 and 20 to pursue a career in the fire service by living at the academy for a weekend.

“I would say the biggest accomplishment would have to be making deputy chief because it’s a big jump to get here,” Schoeck said. “I think back to when I was a firefighter just getting on, I had no idea that I would end up here.”

Schoeck said she wants everyone to know that the Meriden Fire Department is a great place to work and would love to see more diversity within the department after this milestone in the department’s history and professional career.

“I want everybody out there to know that everybody is welcome to apply,” Schoeck said. “It’s a great career. ... It’s not just a job where you can get a paycheck. You have to really want to do this. And that includes females as well. I want everybody to know that. That this is a good place and they should really consider it.”


More From This Section