Charlotte Fire Department Promotes First Latino Immigrant Battalion Chief

By Rosanny Crumpton

Juan Pablo Soto, born and raised in Guatemala, is enjoying his role as Charlotte Fire Department Battalion Chief, calling it “the best job in the world.”

After serving as a city firefighter for 20 years — as a captain for 10 of those years, Soto was promoted to his new role in January 2023. He said being a battalion chief has been both amazing and vastly different from his other roles within the fire department. Being a firefighter was not on his radar 20 years ago, but Soto said he’s grateful the career was put on his path.

His journey in the U.S. began after high school when he moved to Charlotte from Guatemala. Having dual citizenship status, he began cleaning tables by day and cooking at an Italian restaurant by night. He had planned to join the U.S. military and continue his education.

It was during that time that he came across a firefighter who introduced him to what would become his career. He was intrigued enough to apply, dedicate himself to studying (which required learning lots of new terminology, becoming an EMT and learning how to fight fires, among other things). He passed all tests and joined the brother/sisterhood.

He explained that he no longer rides in the fire trucks and has a very different level of responsibility. While the job looks different, he is still firmly committed to Charlotte and its people. In the firefighter world, order and a system are established within seconds of arriving at a scene to mitigate the incident. When a chief arrives, they take command and oversee assignments.

“You have to make decisions very quickly, with very little information, based on your experience, what you see, and what other people on the scene tell you,” Soto said. “It can be nerve-racking. It can be stressful. You have to trust that your experience and training will lead you to make the best decisions when the time comes.” 

Except for police-department-only situations such as arrests, firefighters show up to just about anything else, said Soto. As first responders, they get calls related to medical emergencies, hazard materials, bomb threats, fires, car wrecks and other incidents.

“Our level of knowledge is huge because it can be a gas leak in a house, a suspicious package in a building, a train leaking weird product, a fire, a five-car wreck with people trapped in it … if a person is entangled in a machine or buried in a hole — we go to everything,” he said.

While his current role is new, Soto said he has learned a lot and looks forward to continuing to learn from other chiefs, people, and continued experiences. He said he values growth and being a continuous learner. He’s enjoying this aspect of his leadership role and wants to help with recruitment efforts and help other people get promoted, including many minorities.

He shared mixed feelings about being the first Latino immigrant fire battalion chief, expressing how surprising it is to him to be the first in such a large and diverse city as Charlotte.

Showing up to emergency situations, being able to speak Spanish and understanding the culture has not only come in handy but has also been relieving to the people he helps, Soto said. More diversity among firefighters will help more people.

Soto expressed how much he loves his family, his amazing wife and their three boys. When he’s not at the firehouse, he said he enjoys spending time with and cooking for his family, working out, reading, traveling or reading.