Nearly 19 years ago, at the age of 46, Maricopa Fire engineer James Huerta wasn’t your average whippersnapper taking the Candidate Physical Agility Test.
The eight-part CPAT is a rigorous challenge to show whether a candidate has the physical strength and endurance to handle the demands of being a firefighter.
Firefighting is really for young men and women. By the time they hit 46, many firefighters are thinking of retirement or have already hung up their boots.
For Huerta, it was the beginning of the next chapter of his life. He’d practiced and prepared for eight months before making the trip to Phoenix to take the CPAT for the first time.
But watching fellow firefighters in their late teens and early 20s struggle with the test made Huerta wonder.
“I’m lined up with about 60 young kids of different sizes, nationalities and whatnot,” Huerta recalled. “And I’m thinking, ‘What am I up against?’ I see these kids go before me and they’re failing at it; muscular young men failing … and I’m wondering if I prepared enough.”
While other candidates in the physical peak of their lives had youth on their side, Huerta had something that could not be measured — determination.
After spending most of his professional life making good money as a plumber, he was on a mission. It dawned on him the trade was going to wear out his body one day, and he would have nothing to show for it — and no way to take care of his family.
“I realized the other guys had all that gumption but what they didn’t have I had — the motivation,” said Huerta, who turns 65 this month. “It was the whole idea of why I changed trades — to get a retirement for myself and my family.”
In Huerta’s mind, it had all come down to one day — the day of CPAT — and he wasn’t looking for any moral victories. Huerta excelled at the events, finishing at Level 1, the highest ranking a candidate can earn.
That wasn’t the last day Huerta had to take the CPAT. He’s had to take it many other times through his 50s and early 60s, and his ranking remains at Level 1 or 2, which means top physical condition.
But on that day 19 years ago, one event, the stair mill, was particularly memorable.
The stamina-measuring equipment is reminiscent of a StairMaster. Candidates must stay on it for an extended period.
“I went through that thing in a blaze,” Huerta recalled. “I came out at the end, given it my all, and the proctor asked me if I was upset and why I was so mad.”
Huerta explained to the proctor he wasn’t mad. 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 break your stuff,” Huerta told the proctor.
Time for a change
Huerta has always been a man with his eye on the future. Plumbing was the profession that fed his family and kept a roof over their heads. But at 40 and retirement only a couple of decades away, his interests started to change. He was looking for a job that would provide 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 get the benefit of a pension upon retiring and receive it until they die. And in some cases, their loved ones receive it after they die.
People don’t normally give it much thought, but plumbing is a physically demanding job. Plumbers crawl around on their hands and knees, contorting their bodies into strange positions to reach pipes under sinks or in crawl spaces.
“Plumbing was gonna kill my body as I got older,” Huerta said. “My parents, my father, my uncles, my brothers all did it and they all got really weak, and they didn’t get to live a long life.
“It’s not that firefighting is that much easier, but I just knew I needed to change my life. This was a change that presented me with the opportunity to reach goals that I had for myself and my family.”
Huerta knew the challenges his age would present as a first responder, but he stuck with it.
“I figured people were going to tell me that I’m too old to even start,” Huerta said. “But I was going to give it a shot. They can’t discriminate against my age if I can do the job.”
Inspired by a new way forward, Huerta studied at night to earn his certifications while working his plumbing job during the day.
“I kissed my wife and my kids goodnight, and then I’d go to school,” he recalled. “Two days out of the week, I go to school at night, studying and then go right back to work the next day. And that’s how I got through my semester work and got 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 got an opportunity to be on an ambulance first, and I took that without a question,” Huerta said, noting firefighters first on the scene often deal with people’s injuries.
It was a methodical move by Huerta that pays dividends to this day.
Ben Blanco, who serves on Huerta’s team as a paramedic, took notice of his colleague’s bedside manner.
“He’s really good at dealing with families,” Blanco said. “He goes above and beyond to acknowledge if there’s a family member having a medical emergency and taking stock of every member of that household, helping them out, or just putting them at ease. It might be something as simple as giving a kid a fire helmet or stickers.
“He just goes the extra step.”
A man of character
Huerta isn’t the leader of his team. But if you’ve spent any time around the man, it’s obvious he leads by example and the sheer strength of his character.
Josh Eads, the team’s captain, came up through the ranks, beginning as a fireman on Huerta’s team.
“I started out working as a firefighter underneath him,” Eads said. “Jimmy’s been an engineer a long time and I learned a lot from him. I give a lot of credit to that experience 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 the captain. He could be disgruntled about it. But he’s not and we have such a good working relationship.”
“There’s a lot of respect earned, and a lot of respect given,” he said.
Anthony Stimac, a firefighter on the team, has worked with Huerta for nearly 15 years.
“We’ve been on some crazy calls together,” Stimac said. “There’s a bond there. We’re family. I call him dad, and he calls me son. Anytime I’ve needed anything, he’s been there. If I have a plumbing problem at the house, he comes over and fixes it and doesn’t look for anything. He does it out of the kindness of his heart. He and his wife are both that way and that’s why they’re so well-respected in the community.”
Blanco has only worked with Huerta a year or so but feels a strong connection.
“He’s a man of his word and even if that word is harsh,” Blanco said. “And I think that, as a society, we’re missing that a lot. A lot of men won’t take the time to correct young people. From my experience, he’s a guy who can tell me personally when I need to do better.”
“You can tell when he’s got something important to say, because he’ll start with ‘Mijo’, a Spanish term of endearment that means ‘my son,’” Blanco added. “He won’t say that if he doesn’t feel like you will take it the right way. But when he says ‘mijo,’ you know that whatever he has to say next is important.”
Huerta values relationships, especially the one with his wife, Beth, who works at Global Water as their Client Services Supervisor. The two have been married for 24 years.
“She’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’d be today.”
The next chapter
Huerta is in his 19th year of service with the Maricopa Fire Department, which means in a year he’ll give what amounts to a five-year retirement notice, or as it’s called, “The Drop.” After he gives notice, he can decide to retire at any point in 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’s still in peak physical condition. In his last CPAT test, he came away with a Level 1 status.
“I’m not going to retire and sit around and think about the days past,” Huerta said. “I’m going to keep on trucking. I look at it as the next chapter.”
Huerta plays for a semi-pro softball team that travels all over the country. And while that team consists of players his age, they still routinely compete with younger teams.
Huerta also plans on working in some capacity. That could include a job working with a utility company or returning to plumbing in a consultancy role.
“I’m already thinking about it,” Huerta said. “There are some young guys in the profession that I’d like to help. When I was coming up, someone was there to help teach me and make me what I am.”
Huerta will keep working, living and playing.
“Sometimes, I get asked, ‘when are you going to stop playing ball?’ Probably when I can’t see the ball or field the ball. If I get hurt playing ball then, hey, I gotta start thinking about something else.”
READ MORE: Huerta’s battle with COVID-19.
This story was first published in the March edition of InMaricopa magazine.