Leading the Way for the Next Wave

Published on June 29, 2023

By Sarah Bashford

When Miguel Bautista, ’14, witnessed firefighters responding to a structure fire and watched  how they operated, it jolted his 18 year long career in public safety. Now, Bautista serves as the first Latinx division chief for the Scappoose Fire District in Oregon. 

According to a 2020 report by the National Fire Protection Association, only 2% of all firefighters in the United States who get promoted to chief officer ranks are of Latinx heritage. Less than 8% of firefighters in the U.S. are of Latinx or Hispanic heritage. 

The oldest of five children, Bautista spent his childhood in Keizer, Oregon. Both of his parents immigrated from Mexico. Growing up, Bautista never noticed people who looked like him or coming from his background working in fields like law enforcement or firefighting. When he started his career nearly two decades ago, he said there weren't as many Latinx firefighters.

“Representation is important,” Bautista said. “I understand how important it is for people to see people that look like them in these positions. The lack of representation makes it feel like it is an unobtainable job. When I started this career, I never thought someone like me would be able to pursue a police or fire service career. I never saw anybody that looked like me and no one ever told me, ‘Yes, you can do this, too.’” 

Bautista finished his bachelor's degree during the Great Recession and was looking for a master’s degree program in public safety that would give him the option to work in multiple fields. EKU’s reputation and versatility of the safety, security and emergency management program caught his attention. He liked that the program focused on more than just his desired field in public safety; it also incorporated occupational safety, security and emergency management and offered the ability to specialize in certain areas. Because he was already working as a firefighter in Oregon, the program being 100% online provided an added bonus.

“I credit the program for me being able to secure employment when other people were being laid off during that time,” said Bautista. Having previously worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning his education enabled him to work his way up the ranks as a firefighter to now division chief. 

“I use everything I've learned from the program in my job,” he continued. “The school does well to build you up to be successful when you're in your career. When I graduated from EKU, I knew my subject matter and I knew it well.” Even now, with his many years of experience in the field, he uses the education and knowledge gained from EKU to solve some of the complex problems he encounters as a chief officer.  

Some may feel that not being in a physical classroom is not as engaging. However, Bautista says his experience with the online program was the opposite. 

“I would say the EKU instructors are very well-versed in their subject matter. They're very helpful, but they also hold you accountable and encourage you to dig a little deeper when it comes to the quality of your coursework to make sure that you are actively engaging in discussions,” said Bautista.

“Through those discussions, even though they were virtual, I got to know other students as I went through the program. That was beneficial because rather than just taking a quiz and then moving on, it was more than that.”

Although his only time on EKU’s campus was for his graduation ceremony, Bautista takes pride in being an EKU alumnus. “When people are looking for online programs and universities that they'd like to pursue, EKU is one university that I strongly recommend to my friends, colleagues and anybody asking about what programs are worth their time and their money,” said Bautista.

Bautista looks forward to being the charge of more diversity in his field. He’d like to see more people of diverse backgrounds get the education they need so they can work in fire service jobs. By serving as division chief, he hopes to represent the Latinx community and enable others to see the potential in themselves. 

“When I conduct myself in public and my profession, I have to remember that eyes are looking, and I’m setting an example and leading the way for the next wave,” Bautista said. 

In addition to serving as chief, Bautista volunteers as a disaster medical technician with Empact Northwest, an organization that provides disaster relief and support worldwide. In February, Bautista was deployed through the organization after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake devastated Turkey. He provided emergent medical care, conducted search and rescue operations, gathered actionable intelligence, and helped lay foundations for follow-up medical and relief missions.