Kauai Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman, 62, will hang up his hat and hose at the end of the year.
Though he hasn’t given much thought about how he’ll spend his time once he retires, Westerman said he will be continuing with his community service and spending more time at the golf course.
“I look forward to not having to go to work every single day, go do what I want to do and enjoy what I want to do for the day,” he said.
His career has been rewarding. And if there’s one thing he’s learned through his lifetime of service, Westerman said, it’s that he can handle everything.
“I’ve been through some tough situations as a fireman, some tough situations in the military, just with being a father trying to raise a family, that can pretty much handle anything and kind of handle it with a little bit of decorum, not go off the deep end,” he said.
Westerman, who grew up in a military family, joined the Air Force when he was 17. He served for 20 years. He began volunteering in Arizona as a firefighter and from that experience, he knew he wanted to make the profession his career.
After serving as fire chief for eight years at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Westerman was appointed to the KFD role by Mayor Bryan Baptiste in 2005. Prior to that, KFD had been in a leadership crises, with four chiefs in two years.
When Westerman took the reins, Deputy Chief Kilipaki Vaughan said he brought a leadership of calm to the department.
“He’s always been very encouraging,” Vaughan said.
Before he officially began as chief, Westerman stopped by the Waimea Station, Vaughan said, just to say hi. Within a week of being appointed, he was back in Waimea.
“Even as a firefighter, you felt included. My first year as a firefighter, I felt included,” Vaughan said.
One year, Westerman challenged Vaughan to write a grant that would add 15 new positions to the department. They weren’t awarded the grant that year, but Westerman didn’t give up.
“We got turned down the second time and the third year, he told me, ‘Let’s do it again.’ The third year was the year we actually got it. That was a huge grant, that was a $4 million project, if I remember correctly,” Vaughan said.
Throughout the years, Vaughan said Westerman has given great career advice, encouraging everyone to get involved.
“He’s been fantastic. His endurance as a leader shows,” Vaughan said.
One of the ways Westerman encouraged others was by sending staff to an executive fire officer-training program through the National Fire Academy, Vaughan said.
Prior to Westerman, no one from KFD had participated in the training.
“Since he started sending students, three from KFD have graduated,” Vaughan said.
After 40 days of rain in 2006 caused the Ka Loko Dam to breach, Vaughan said it was impressive to see Westerman take on the logistical challenges of the situation, because fire departments usually play the operational role in such scenarios.
“I think it was pretty cool that the chief embraced that role when it’s one we’re not really used to, and to see people work out of their comfort zone and see that we can flourish in it was awesome,” Vaughan said.
All firefighters, said Battalion Chief Gary Hudson, chose the profession because they wanted to give back to their community, but Westerman called it something different.
“He called it ‘polish the badge.’ He reminded us the community is the one that supports us, they are our customers, and to give back whenever possible,” Hudson said.
Under Westerman’s leadership, KFD assisted with Valentine’s Day dances for kupuna, swimming with long-term care patients from Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital, and assisting Kauai Hospice with its Fourth of July celebration.
“Sometimes in meetings, he would ask, ‘What have you done to polish the badge lately?’” Hudson said.
Hudson said the Ocean Safety Bureau blossomed under Westerman’s leadership and one of his greatest accomplishments was the Kaikea Station.
“You must understand, it was a time when the economy was tanking. Many departments across the country were cutting personnel and closing stations. Not Kauai Fire Department,” Hudson said.
Hudson said Westerman has done a great job for the KFD, residents and visitors.
“Thanks for all your help, chief,” he said. “Go have some fun.”
Kauai County Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura said she appreciates Westerman’s service throughout the years.
“He stepped up at a time of need and provided important leadership in public safety,” she said.
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said it’s been a pleasure working with Westerman.
“I’ve watched him set a high standard of professionalism and leadership that continues to shape the men and women of our Kauai Fire Department,” Carvalho said. “With his upcoming retirement, it is hard to imagine KFD without Chief Westerman, but it is because of his years of dedication and proven leadership that I am confident he will leave the department in great hands.”
Westerman said being firefighter has been the best job in the world because the community loves you and your family is proud of you. As chief of KFD, Westerman said he’s had a great time.
“This has been an absolutely great job. Working with the men and woman at the Kauai Fire Department has been kind of the capstone of my whole life,” he said. “They’re great men and women. They do a great job, they make my job easy. I’m very proud of them and very proud of the department.”