Tou Lo’s father had originally wanted him to be a tradesman. But on Friday afternoon, he applauded and beamed along with Lo’s mother at a graduation ceremony as their son became the first Hmong-American firefighter in St. Paul.
Lo, 25, was one of 13 graduates from the St. Paul firefighter academy class of 2013-B.
Though the journey wasn’t easy, Lo said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s a physically and mentally challenging position, but the reward is great,” said Lo, after receiving his new badge.
The Twin Cities has the largest concentration of Hmong of any metro area in the United States, according to the Hmong Studies Journal analysis of census data.
Despite the large demographic, the Fire Department has had Hmong EMTs who work for their nonemergency ambulance service, but not firefighters.
“I thought it was an honor to be a first and surprising to me that I was the first, but at the same time, somebody has got to break the ice,” Lo said.
His family couldn’t be prouder.
“It’s a big joy. I’m very happy for him that he completed something that he liked,” said his mother, Pamela Lo.
His father felt the same.
“I’m proud of him. … I know he will be successful in his career,” said David Lo.
Lo was born in Evry, a French commune in the suburbs of Paris. His parents were from Laos, but after the Vietnam War they relocated as refugees in Thailand and then went to Europe. In 1999, Lo, his parents and his two older sisters moved to St. Paul to live with his grandmother.
It took Lo about two years to become fluent in English (he could already speak French and Hmong). He was inspired to be a firefighter when he saw a Sept. 11 documentary about firefighters during his sophomore year of high school. He thought at the time: “That’s pretty honorable. I want to do that.”
The day after he graduated from Lakeville North High School, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve. Besides boot camp and combat training, Lo also went through military fire academy training. He was deployed to Djibouti, a small country located in the Horn of Africa, before he returned to Minnesota.
He was committed to St. Paul
Lo now lives in Minneapolis, but he still wanted to join the St. Paul Fire Department because St. Paul was the first city he moved to in the United States.
Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, who was at the graduation and served on the department’s new diversity task force, said hiring Lo was a big step for the department.
“It makes young men and women think if somebody like Tou does it then I can do it, too,” Hawj said.
The St. Paul Fire Department has been working to diversify its ranks.
According to a July 2013 department diversity report, a little more than 2 percent of sworn, uniformed employees were Asian compared to 15 percent of St. Paul residents. For women, there is a larger discrepancy with 4.8 percent composing the total sworn employees, even though women make up more than 51 percent of the city of St. Paul.
The Fire Department has taken several steps to diversify its ranks including the EMS Academy, a program designed to recruit and train low-income young adults from diverse backgrounds, and a new diversity task force, which has been working on recommendations to improve the department’s searching, testing and hiring processes.
“We need to reflect the community that we serve,” said St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler.