Walter Hernandez, 25, had to put out some of his own fires out before he could be a fireman.
He was the best candidate for the job, but his many speeding tickets were a concern for leaders in the fire department.
But Fire Chief Matthew Poole and those on the Garner Fire Board decided to take a chance on him in 2012.
And in December, he was named career fireman of the year. Every year, one fireman in the department is named career fireman of the year. That person is voted on by their peers in the fire department.
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Poole said Hernandez won overwhelmingly. With every vote, voters give their justification of why they think the person they voted for should be career fireman of the year.
The majority of the comments described his positive attitude and his willingness to work well with others, Poole said.
“And probably the most comments that I received based on that survey was his ability to train others,” he said. “I think Walter has a knack of taking people with less experience and helping them along the way.”
“I think he’s very patient and understands where they come from and that’s been noted by his peers.”
Captain Ronnie Correia agreed.
“I think that is because Walter, when he was a volunteer, had that and appreciated (the help) because of it and now he’s trying to pass it along,” Correia said.
Hernandez didn’t have many words to say about receiving the award. He said he still can’t believe it. Receiving the award been a goal of his. Hernandez told himself that he would get the award one day but when he did, it came as a surprise.
“To be honest with you, when I heard the news, I was surprised because, I don’t think I had a good year,” he said. “I had a decent year in my opinion. I’m my biggest critic. I don’t know what to say… I think it’s pretty cool.”
Things have never been easy for Hernandez. He’s always had to work for everything he’s had, something his father, mother, and step-father have taught him in his 25 years.
‘Tickets left and right’
“My dad and mother – when they were still married – raised me on hard work. Especially my father,” Hernandez said. “He believed that hard work paid off. And my mother, it’s something that she never let that go, even when we moved. So I guess I applied that toward anything that I ever did. The harder I worked at it the better I got at it.”
Originally from Pasadena, California, and born to immigrant Salvadorian parents, Hernandez moved with his mother and step-father across country to Raleigh when he was 10. Both his parents had divorced and remarried.
The family knew no one in Raleigh.
After four years, the family relocated to Garner. But things hit a rough patch when he got his license and a new car. He received multiple charges and citations for speeding.
“I just had a left foot,” he said. “I had speeding tickets left and right.”
He said in high school he would try to hang out with the “cool crowd,” even though hanging with them “wasn’t always the right thing to do.”
After high school, he worked with special needs children. After that, he started volunteering for the fire department, and began to surround himself with people who were motivated to go places.
“I want to do something with my life, and once I found something that I was good at, I focused on it,” Hernandez said. “And I’m here now.”
Hernandez volunteered for the department for about three years before a position came open. When he applied he wasn’t sure he would get it.
‘A good choice’
The department and the fire board had their reservations too.
“It’s difficult to get on the fire department,” Poole said. “There’s a lot of different requirements and we look for certain people to be able to carry the traditions on. And when the conversation of Walter ensued, not knowing Walter but just looking at his application, there was a long, long conversation about whether or not to let Walter Hernandez on the fire department based on some decisions he had made in the past.”
But because of his experience working with special needs children, his time volunteering, and their faith in him to not make any more mistakes, they gave him a chance.
“That board that night made a good choice to put him on the organization ,” Poole said. “I think it served Walter well and Walter served us well. By giving him a chance, and letting his previous transgressions go, Walter has come a long way.”
Hernandez said he’s not one to get emotional often, but that day he cried.
“I cried because it was a hard three and a half, four years to get here,” Hernandez said. “I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time I could. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t, because I was in his office, so I don’t think that would have been professional to do.”