Fire Chief Robert Westerman talks growth, future needs

LIHUE — Robert Westerman knows adapting to an ever-changing world is a key to success.

“We like to say it’s 250 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. But we’re having to take a serious look at how we do business,” said the chief of the Kauai Fire Department. “Because 75 percent of our calls are medical calls, there’s not as great of a need for the big red truck. But yet, we need the big red truck for the other 285 calls that are fire calls.”

Because of the shift in service calls, KFD is re-thinking its model, Westerman said.

“But it’s tough, it’s really tough,” he said.

KFD employs 135 firefighters who respond to 5,900 annual service calls, Westerman said.

He hopes to extend services to meet the needs of a more populated island.

“We have some communities that are still on the fringes of our response time,” he said.

One such example is Kilauea — its closest fire station is the Kaikea Fire Station, which is across from Kealia Beach, north of Kapaa.

To address this issue, Westerman started a 50-year building plan initiative which seeks to improve every fire station on the island.

“One of the oldest stations is in Kapaa, and we’re trying to re-locate that and build a new station,” he said. “We’re still looking.”

He plans to address island growth and future needs in the next strategic plan when it is updated in about three years.

“About four years ago, we embarked on re-doing our strategic plan. And that was a big challenge,” he said. “One of the main philosophies of that was to change from a 20-year strategic plan model, which is really not conducive to county government, because there’s no longevity.”

Westerman, 61, and his wife, Ann Marie Kaleleonalani Wooton, live in Kekaha. He was a firefighter for the Pacific Missile Range Facility from 1992 to 1998 and was chief of the PMRF Fire Department from 1998 to 2005. Before moving to Kauai, he served as a volunteer firefighter and EMT Corona De Tucson Fire Department in Tucson Arizona.

When Westerman became chief 11 years ago, he had several initiatives he wanted to accomplish. They included improving response time with Emergency Medical Services, getting firefighters certified as Emergency Medical Technicians, improving firefighter education and generating revenues through grants.

“We’ve been pretty successful in the last 10 years,” he said. “We have a grant committee made up of wonderful firefighters who are very prolific in their writing and are very successful.”

As fire chief, his base salary is $127,313.

In the last decade, KFD added $6 million to its budget from grants alone, Westerman said. A recent purchase made possible by a grant was the county’s new ladder truck in November.

The final price tag of the truck was $774,000, but 90 percent of it was funded by a Federal Emergency Management grant called the Assistance to Firefighters.

When Westerman became chief, he wanted the firefighters to know their opinion and input matters to him.

“My joy is seeing firefighters with a good morale and a good attitude. They feel like the department is theirs and they have input,” he said. “One of the first things I did was provide access to the budget process and use input from them into the budget process.”

Westerman considers getting a deputy fire chief one of his greatest accomplishments. The current deputy fire chief is Kilipaki Vaughan, who was promoted in November.

“There was no deputy chief when I came here,” he said. “It’s just too much work for one person. The idea that one fire chief can manage all of the responsibilities — it was out of control.”

Westerman was also able to hire another mechanic and he opened the first fire station in over 60 years — the Kaikea Fire Station — which also serves as the hazardous material station.

But the crowning jewel of his time with KFD was when two crews won the Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor.

The award was given to KFD in 2010 and 2014 to recognize their efforts during two rescue missions. The 2010 incident involved the rescue of an ultra-light aircraft pilot and student after it crashed in the Hanapepe Valley. In 2014, a crew was recognized after rescuing 121 stranded people in the Kalalau Valley.

“We’re only the second department in U.S. history to win it twice,” he said.

The most rewarding part of his 11 years of service is working with the men and women of the department who make it all possible, Westerman said.

“They’re smart, articulate and humble,” he said. “They’re here for the right reason. When people in the community come to me and tell me they appreciate what I’ve done, I tell them it isn’t me — it’s the men and women who make the department what it is.”

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