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Sister, brother Ariz. fire captains find themselves on same shift

Tucson Firefighter Cyprian Ortiz saw a familiar face on his first day as captain — his sister Captain Crystal Ortiz

By Charles Borla
The Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON, Ariz. — On his first shift as a captain in the Tucson Fire Department earlier this month, Cyprian Ortiz had all of this stress and trepidation washed away by a familiar face: his big sister.

On that day Capt. Crystal Ortiz was assigned to the same station where he launched his newest role in the department.

“On my first day as a captain I kind of want to have a certain group of people to go through it with me, just to be there with me. She was one I had in mind and she was there,” Cyprian Ortiz said of kicking off his role as a fire captain. “It was kind of like a dream come true, it was pretty special (and) it meant a lot.”

The siblings learned they’d be working at the same station the night before the Jan. 3 shift.

“I was very excited, so excited. Then I got into big-sister mode so I’m just like, ‘you know whatever you need, you tell me, I’m going to be there, I’m available,’” Crystal said hurriedly. “I just wanted him to succeed ... I was just super stoked, super excited, just to be there on his first day. It was fate for us and I’m very, very thankful for that.”

The sibling’s path to careers in the fire department started in 2009. That’s when Crystal Ortiz took her younger brother open house the department was hosting. And while he did go, albeit begrudgingly, that simple move changed the course of their lives entirely.

Crystal Ortiz, 38, and Cyprian Ortiz, 32, are believed to be the first brother-sister pair to both serve as captains at the same station, on the same shift, the department said last week in a post to Facebook.

“This is believed to be a first in the history of Tucson Fire,” the department said. "(W)ith Captain Crystal Ortiz serving on Engine 7 while her brother sat in the right front seat for his very first shift as a captain on Ladder 7.”

Cyprian, or “Cyp” as his sister calls him, had just graduated high school before heading to the open house. Crystal, the middle child between him and eldest brother Joseph, was a single mom working two jobs, having her daughter, Keyanna, when she was just 19. Or as Crystal put it, “a baby raising a baby.”

She says fire service was “a dream job” for her growing up, but she was unsure of what success she could find as a woman in the field.

“It’s kind of corny but, ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always thought that seeing the trucks and seeing the firefighters I thought that was the coolest job on earth. But being a woman, I never thought I could do it,” Crystal said. “So that being said I was like, ‘well my brother is graduating from high school, I think he would be great in this career.’ He’s always been real athletic (and) I was like, ‘you know what, I’m going to take him to this orientation.’”

Cyp, well, didn’t exactly share the same enthusiasm as his big sister. In fact, he said firefighting was “absolutely not” his plan coming out of high school.

“I was just graduating high school at the time, and I was like sure, you know. (I) never had any interest in the field or thought about it, I always kind of laughed at it when it was presented to me, ‘firefighting, I would never do that.’ But here I am, going to this open house with her,” he said. “For me, at that time, firefighting was on the opposite side of the spectrum. I never really saw myself in the public safety-physicality work I guess you would say.”

But that open house changed Cyp’s mind entirely.

“I saw the video and heard a couple captains talking about their job, what they do on a daily basis, the camaraderie, the station life. I was like, ‘hey, this is something I can get into,’” he said. “Ever since then, that was it. I was hooked on it, and if it wasn’t for my sister having this idea of going and checking out this open house ... I owe it all to her.”

Cyp went from high school to the Pima Fire Academy , where he became certified in firefighting and as an EMT. He then got hired on by the South Tucson Fire Department in April 2012 , before joining TFD in 2015 as an entry-level firefighter. After about a year, Cyp was promoted to an engineer position (a driver).

Although she dragged Cyp to that open house, sparking his interest in the field, Crystal Ortiz took a different path to her dream job.

“I’m 38 and I have an 18-year-old daughter, not planned but the best thing that ever happened to me, so I had to get my life together pretty quick there,” she said. “I’ve been a single mom, the whole time. I worked at Walgreens, I worked multiple jobs and went to Pima Medical Institute and got my associate’s degree as a respiratory therapist ... Like I said I never really thought I could do fire service, it’s always been something that’s been in the back of my head as my dream job. Then, the older I got I was like, ‘I’ve got to try now.’”

She enrolled in Pima Fire Academy in 2013 and was hired on by Tucson Fire in 2014. Her brother joined the department the next year.

“For my brother and I, it’s always been Tucson Fire. That was the end-all-be-all,” Crystal said. “For us, if you got into Tucson Fire, you made it. That was always our goal.”

After getting hired, Crystal Ortiz worked as an entry-level firefighter, as all new hires within Tucson Fire do. She became a paramedic in 2017.

Over the course of their time with Tucson Fire, about eight years of them both being with the department, the siblings say they’ve worked together about 10 times. But it doesn’t mean the two only pass by one another on the job.

In 2017, they shared about six months together as partners on TFD’s Engine 7, serving both “as firefighters in the back” of the truck, Cyp said.

“We’ve had calls together, and it’s just so cool. I don’t know how to describe it, we’re both doing what we love then we look over and see the other person working,” Cyp said. “I’m just so proud of her, it’s awesome. Especially her being a (woman) in a predominantly male profession, just to see her kicking butt.”

In July of 2022, the Ortiz siblings made similar history, working together as mentors for that year’s recruiting class. The department said in a Facebook post at that time that, while there have “been others with short stints together, Cyprian and Crystal are believed to be the first brother-sister to serve extended time together” for the department.

Just two months later, in September 2022 , Crystal Ortiz was promoted to fire captain. But Tucson Fire captains don’t get promoted and then just post up at a fire station after such a promotion. They first have to go through what is called “swing.” That’s a probationary period where a captain has a set schedule, but not a set workplace: they go to stations where they’re needed.

Seeing his sister excel at her new position, Cyp decided to go for a captain’s spot, too. He eventually became certified to be a fire a captain and applied for a position last year.

Which brings us to last week. On Wednesday, Jan. 3 , Cyp had his first shift as a TFD fire captain.

” Everything kind of lined up perfectly (and) it was history from there.”

Cyp Ortiz said the experience of his first day as captain was somewhat of a “dream come true.”

"(Crystal’s) an individual I trust immensely, personally and her intelligence and skill-base in a position as captain. She’s earned the respect of not only me but the department as a whole,” he said. “It was kind of like a dream come true, it was pretty special (and) it meant a lot.”

Crystal Ortiz says it doesn’t even feel like work, because she gets to “work” with her best friend.

“Cyp is my best friend. Absolutely, hands-down my best friend. There’s a bit of an age difference, so ever since he was born, he’s just been my bright light in a dark room for me. He has brought so much happiness into my life. I adore him,” she said. “Being able to work with your best friend, is it work? No. It’s like the best thing ever, and just knowing that if anything ever did happen, God forbid, I have my brother there. Like, he is there, for me, no matter what ... Just to work alongside your best friend, I don’t know how to describe that. It’s the best feeling on earth, that’s all I can say.”

BJ Noriega, 48, has been with Tucson Fire for 24 years, the last 18 of which serving as captain. He first met Cyp Ortiz during recruitment, where Noriega was one of his training captains.

"(Cyp) just had a really lovable personality ... He’ll probably be embarrassed when I say that, but he’s known for that in the department,” Noriega said. “I was commenting to one of the captain’s because he came in that way, and the captain turned to me and goes, ‘that guy is a beast.’ (The captain) was commenting on Cyprian’s physical abilities out there and he just, naturally, was head-and-shoulders above all the other recruits at that time but he was just so humble, and lovable.”

Noriega didn’t meet Crystal Ortiz on the job, but he says it was easy to spot why they shared a last name.

“They both have very similar personalities, I mean, they both are very capable people on-the-job, they care about the job, and they’re just so humble,” he said. “We (TFD) consider ourselves a ‘family on the fire department.’ But the cool thing about it, you know we normally bring people into ‘our family,’ Cyprian and Crystal, they bring people into their family. So if you’ve known (them) for any amount of time, you’re going to meet their parents. And sure enough I’ve met their parents, they’ve come by the station countless times ... You can see where Crystal and Cyprian get it from. The humbleness, well-mannered, a love of life. It’s within that Ortiz family.”

Noriega said he didn’t know Cyprian shared his first shift as a captain with his big sis until he saw it on Facebook.

“I screenshotted the (post) and I told him that had made my day. I didn’t know that they’d be working together on his first day as captain, (TFD doesn’t try to do those kinds of things intentionally,” he said. “The thing is, when you have the family come on like that, it’s nice that you see that somebody loves something so much it gets passed down to a sister or a brother, or a child, and they come up with the same passions. It’s nice to see that generational thing. Watching families come through together, it’s awesome.”

Would either sibling be firefighting if it weren’t for each other?

“Absolutely not, no, nope. I probably would’ve been somewhere else,” Cyp said. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be down this path, doing this. I’m beyond grateful and thankful she dragged me along to that Tucson Fire open house in 2009.”

Crystal Ortiz concurred.

“No, there’s no way. I got on when I was 28, the doubt, the self-doubt has been there my whole life,” she said.

“Having my brothers, being so family oriented and Cyp getting into this ... you know it was a blessing, and it was fate that we went to that orientation (and) that he got on. All that self-doubt, just talking to my brothers and the way they believe in me and we speak of each other, we motivate each other,” Crystal Ortiz said.

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