Talking story with the Fire Department

LIHUE — Kauai Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman and Captain Daryl Date, head of the KFD Fire Prevention Bureau, sat down to talk about the challenges ahead and the importance of fire prevention in the community. The responses are edited for length.

Tell us a little about your career prior to serving at KFD?

Westerman: I started in the fire service in Arizona. I was in the military but was working as a part-time fireman with a combination department. I planned to continue on there as a full time in Arizona until my wife wanted to come home to Kauai.

I started out (at PMRF) a firefighter, then operator, then inspector and then fire chief from 1998 until February 2005 when Mayor Baptiste asked me to come and be the Kauai Fire Chief. We got the Fire Commission on board after that and now I report to the commission.

Date: I got hired in 1995 and am going on 19 years now. I grew up in Waimea and went to college for a few years until I got hired by the Fire Department. I continued though and got an associates degree in fire science through the long distance education program at Honolulu Community College.

What made you want to be a firefighter?

Date: Every day is different at work. Every call you go on is different. You don’t get into the same routine. Growing up I never wanted to sit behind a desk — but I have been doing that for the past 10 years in my position here. That and just helping people.

What do you tell young people who might want to become a firefighter?

Westerman: We do a lot of job fairs with the schools in combination with Ocean Safety and Fire. We tell youth at that age to maintain good physical health and the importance of not smoking and abstinence from drinking — the kinds of things that would damage your body.

You need to be physically fit to do either one of those jobs and out firefighters and water safety officers are good role models. The other thing is to encourage them to go on to college. It doesn’t really make any difference what type of college and our requirement is (for two years after high school) to work or go to college in order to be eligible. Math skills are important to firefighters and even if they are not in school, they need to work, maintain healthy habits and continue to read or study to keep their mind active to prepare for the initial aptitude test.

We are very proud of our Junior Lifeguard Program and for youth that want to be water safety officers it is a good program that teaches you the lifestyle and shows you what your body has to endure to be a water safety officer. They are having fun learning a profession and getting fit while they prepare for it. We teach about drug awareness and keeping grades up.

The kids come in the program and stay year and year. As the seniors win the competitions and graduate then the next group already in program steps up. This will be our 10th year in a row for the state championship and the first time we go to the national championship.The Keiki Guard Program provide youth with water safety information and prepares them for the Junior Lifeguard Program.

What is the difference today from the department you started in?

Date: The changes in technology. As a fire service we need to do constant training to keep up with the equipment and different products that are coming out, and the speed that it’s coming out is incredible.

What is the difference now with an administrative leadership role?

Date: I relate my job a lot to team sports. It’s like going from being a player to a coach. I have done both in my lifetime and as a captain I see myself more like a coach. I see the strengths of my players and put them in the best positions possible to get the job done.

When do you become personally involved in a call?

Westerman: There is a brush fire going on right now and I am in my office. But it is not the level of brush fire that was in Kekaha last August.

I get involved when the BC’s (battalion commanders) are stretched to their maximum and they call in the second battalion (large fires where commanders need support to handle logistics and let them concentrate on the fire).

Even then, one of the policies I changed is to call in an additional off-duty BC, and more captains to provide that upper level support so that you are not struggling trying to do it on your own. When it gets to that point that they are calling in the second BC then the deputy and I are probably somewhere near the call helping to manage the big external resources, the operations center and keeping the mayor informed.

What is different about being a firefighter on Kauai versus the Mainland?

Westerman: Firefighters do the same thing pretty much no matter where we go. I do meet every year at a fire chiefs conference on the Mainland. I would say they have the same struggles and trials and tribulations that we have, whether on a smaller or larger scale.

We are unique as an island state. We have mutual aid agreements with two fire stations that can help us at the airport and PMRF. However, consider the mutual aid agreements on the Mainland where departments all around you can drive from miles away to get to you. The uniqueness of Kauai of course means we do everything from fighting fires to rescuing people off the mountain to diving. We don’t do residential EMS yet.

Describe the fire station culture?

Westerman: Firefighters are on a 24-hour shift for three days and then off for four days. Each station is a little different in how they manage the responsibilities depending on the captain’s preference. It’s like a family and then again its a work environment.

The young recruits in the station know who the captain is and show them that respect. They care about each other and their families are invited to come in the evening to talk story. The fire station is their home and they maintain it.

We don’t have maids or food service and they cook their own meals, clean the station and make their bunks. A lot of them have aquaponics gardens and even raise their own fish.

What are the most preventable causes of residential fires on the island?

Westerman: Probably cooking fires are the most preventable type of structural fire. I would say most of the time it is a deep frier, a grease issue or an unattended fire. They start something and go get involved in something else and then all of a sudden the pot is dry and it’s melting.

What should residents keep in mind regarding combustibles in the home and care and maintenance of their yards?

Date: We try to educate homeowners on (FireWise.org) recommendations. Maintain vegetation around the property and try to keep a clear space of 30 feet around the home. You don’t have to keep it cut to the bare earth but just maintain it.

Westerman: The fire prevention inspectors are out in the businesses to ensure they are storing chemicals properly and away from open flames like water heaters. This message travels to the homeowners about maintaining exit ways.

You need to really store things properly. Our homes are small and we don’t have a lot of storage capacity and if it no longer serves a purpose then re-use it (to the thrift shops) Fire engines have mobile data terminals that communicate constantly with our servers.

They respond to a call and if the business was inspected they will have that information about the hazards, chemicals, points of contact, and the closest fire hydrant. They can check for these things while driving to a fire. We don’t inspect homes but businesses are required to do tier reporting.

What are common fire risks with kids?

Date: We teach younger kids just to recognize fire and how to get out of the home and stay out. As kids get older we teach them different aspects of the kitchen scenario from unattended cooking, keeping the pot handles in, and their clothing. We tell them to keep long hair in buns or tied back so there is nothing loose that can catch fire.

We teach people to use multipurpose extinguishers that cover almost every type of fire in the home and they do sell different sizes. (“A” fires are caused by trash, wood and paper. “B” fires are liquids and “C” fires involve electrical equipment.)

Fire extinguishers in the car have also saved people’s lives following a car accident. The fire extinguisher is meant to be used on small fires and we are not teaching people to be fire fighters.

What is new with outreach and intervention demonstrations?

Date: The Fire Safety Trailer is a brand new educational tool that brings a hands-on learning aspect to the public. There is a mock kitchen and bedroom and also a room with a live fire fed by propane where we can demonstrate how a sprinkler system would operate and teach people how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Within these mock rooms there are digital flames, heat producing devises, smoke machines, and alarms that go off that makes it all very realistic.

We teach kids what to do if a fire starts in the home so that they can visualize and see what it would be like and how to get out to a safe place and call 911. We can adjust the curriculum to make the trailer training appropriate for any age.

One of the modules is an all-weather package to include a surround sound stereo system in the kitchen to produce noises like a thunderstorm, hurricane, tsunami, or flood so it can accomplish different natural disaster scenarios that people can experience.

The Fire Prevention Bureau staff performs skits relating to the Fire Prevention Week themes and this year it is kitchen fires. In past years we went to the elementary schools and this year we are going to have a huge show-and-tell event for the during Fire Prevention Week on Oct. 9 by Vidinha Stadium. It will include the fire safety trailer, Ocean Safety, operations, the helicopter and more. We want to promote it to the best that we can.

Westerman: The Ocean Safety Bureau, just like with us, says prevention is 95 percent of the game. We have to educate, educate, educate as much as we can. Fires are going to happen and drownings are going to happen and we can train all of our guys to respond to that but the only thing we really feel our charge is to reduce the risk to the community through education. We put a lot of our time and effort into that and although it doesn’t seem like it we put pretty much everything that isn’t nailed down to public education.

Does KFD respond to complaints about overgrown fields?

Date: If we receive a complaint then one of the inspectors will go check it out and if it’s warranted we will notify the landowner and leasee of the situation. We have a notice of violation procedure and there are certain measures that can be done to mitigate the situation if it goes that far.

Westerman: We have virtually no control on what happens with homeowners and private property. We can issue a citation if trees are growing so that you can’t see the house and it becomes a hazard for them and their neighbor. As a fire safety issue we have no control over things like someone storing cars or doing other things. Homeowners and whoever owns property adjacent to open space and wildland space is responsible for helping maintain that buffer up to their home or property line. We will investigate and issue a citations. Usually most people comply.

Do county, state and federal fire agreements work?

Westerman: We realize that we are alone. We do collaborate real well with the state for wildland fires. The state forester only has about 15 guys on island that fight fires but that is not their job every day. That is a trained resource that can come fight a wildland fire. Federal partners at PMRF are there anytime we need them. They are trained in wildland and structural firefighting and in hazardous materials. We collaborate all the time and have a mutual aid agreement as we do with the airport. They don’t go out too far because they are there to keep the airport open but we partner with them and can call on their resources.

When the education trailer is out in the community and not in the school we are getting Red Cross and Civil Defense with us to provide information. Anyone who wants to partner with us we are more than happy to partner as an all-hazards approach.

Is the KFD an accredited fire department?

Westerman: There is an accrediting body for fire service just like police departments. We are not ready to move into that step yet. It’s a super duper self-inspection program to make sure you are doing everything right, and doing by the standards, the inspections are done by NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) code. Making sure our responses are according to NFPA standard 1710. That is all done as part of that process. We started and we stopped. I just don’t have the supervision and the staff to do it. The firefighters are all already busy and we put that on hold.

Are vehicles and equipment up to date?

Westerman: We are in pretty good shape. We are buying a new engine this year. Engines are the most expensive part of our business. Over the last seven years we have replaced all but three of the front-line apparatus and then pushed down to our back up spares. We can’t wait for the fire engines to get fixed. It’s got to be ready to go all of the time.

We have a good vehicle replacement program and the day-to-day equipment the firefighters have is the best and they do a good job of taking care of it. This year in our budget we are replacing some small stuff like hoses, floating pumps and one engine. With a second mechanic now we can get good longevity out of the equipment.

We do a good job writing about a million dollars a year in federal grants that help with a lot of equipment replacement.

How do private citizens help with firefighting?

Westerman: We bring the major landowners and leasees together each year to talk story along with state and county employees that work with the wildlife-urban interface. This year was very productive with around 30 people and we talked about what happened in the last year and how and where we could have better, where we were lacking and where we were successful. Everyone has an opportunity to talk about what they can offer so when there is a fire we know Robinson has the bulldozer we can get in an hour, and the corn companies have equipment and when it is available. The ranchers and farmers that lease the land tell us about their water tanks and available equipment and contractors we can call. Those are the conversations we have every year.

How difficult is it to fight the brush fires?

Westerman: We are coming out of a drought but even when we are damp and a little wet the swamps can still catch fire. Usually it’s manmade accidental from someone doing something in the forest where they shouldn’t, and occasionally it’s a smoker, an animal or a lightning strike. The remoteness makes it extremely challenging because the engine companies are designed to fight structural fires and not to go off the road to fight forest fires. We have smaller trucks that can hold water and personnel to go deep into the forest to help fight fires.

Fighting big fires is a numbers game. An engine company can handle a small structural fire with sometimes a second engine company as a back up for exposures. Wildland fires take 25 or up to 100 people and that is a significant difference in numbers. These fires can get out of control really quick and there is not way to contain them other than protecting exposures, houses, and cut the lines to stop keep it from advancing.

It’s a challenge to set it all up and do it safely so we don’t lose people like we did in Arizona. We came close to that with the Kokee fire last August. Luckily we had a bulldozer that was able to cut a line around our firefighters to keep the fire from advancing. They couldn’t get any closer from their position and couldn’t quite make it to a dozer line. Every single fire is different. There is no blueprint on a fire.

Is KFD up to strength?

Westerman: We get a lot of candidates for entry level firefighters. We lose about 50 percent from the application process to recruit classes. We challenge ourselves to always hire the right people.

The retention rate for our firefighters is very good. People change their minds and decide this isn’t for them but that percentage is very low. The number of firefighters that are staffed is a nationally recognized level and we run overtime on shortages until we have at least four to five candidates to run a recruit class.

The challenge is in upper level management. Without the assistant chiefs on board the chief and deputy chief end up with more work than they should be doing. Our captains are the backbone and run the department on a day-to-day basis. Most of them have more than 20 years of service and are responsible for their crews, operations and assignments.

They are challenged to just maintain skills and all that they have to do. They don’t have time to be a manager of anything but their crew. It is also a challenge for the battalion chiefs that manage eight crews of 35 people through the day.

Everything beyond that rests on the deputy chief and I. Having an assistant chief of operations and special operations allows the freedom for them to be here and to understand what it takes to manage the department as a whole and to understand all the bureaus because the battalion commanders are only working with operations and not managing them.

It has been my challenge to work myself out of a job when we have the skills and the abilities in the individuals of the department to step up. Then we can provide the commission with a good list of KFD firefighters that could be chief. It is a challenge because the tasks that are done by a fire captain are not the tasks that are done by a battalion commander, and they do not perform the tasks that are done by the chief or the deputy chief. So we need a level in there that I say is a place to fail — and I know some people don’t like to hear me say that because no one works to fail. But they have to be able to have the authority to make a decision that will have some impact. Otherwise they don’t learn anything and they won’t be an effective fire chief.

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