Just Call Him Chief

Chief Westerman at his desk

The demands on the men and women of the Kaua‘i Fire Department are as varied as any fire company in the U.S., says Chief Robert Westerman, and they have to train continuously for any eventuality

It’s a Saturday morning and Kauai Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman is about to stand in for the mayor to give a talk about positive coaching.

The speech, given at last week’s Kekaha and Hanapepe Pop Warner event, was heard by roughly 400 in attendance, ranging from parents and coaches, to football players and cheerleaders ages 7 to 13.

Though some fire chiefs don’t consider discussing the importance of positive leadership as part of their job description, for Westerman, it’s right up his alley as is caring about our youths.

“I’ve always wanted to give back,” he says.

It makes sense, therefore, that Westerman’s first gig at a fire department was as a volunteer.

Today he’s not just the island’s fire chief, which is a 24/7 job, but also a member of the West Kaua’i Community Coalition, West Kaua’i Business

Professional Association, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans and he takes caring for his community to heart.

Perhaps that’s why he is such a good match for wife Ann Wooton, also a staple in the community, whom he met in 1982 while the two were in the Air Force in Arizona.

Grandparents of nine, the two are like unofficial ambassadors of the West side. They’ve taken up causes left and right over the years everything from Project Grad to bringing Main Street businesses together with the West Kaua’i Main Street Program.

The chief met wife Ann Wooton in the Air Force. Amanda C. Gregg photos

Of course, Westerman knows how to lead, too. And it’s a good thing, as his staff is charged with arguably the most challenging task on the island, saving lives. Case in point: On the same day as his aforementioned speech, a rescue mission headed by his department was under way to save a father and son who got lost hiking in Koke’e and KFD rescue specialist Kilipaki Vaughan evacuated them without injury with the help of Air 1.

That’s a typical day’s work for KFD emergency responders, as the Garden Isle is home to some of the most extreme terrain and rip currents in the world. With a population of 67,000 and an additional 18,000 visitors a day on average, according to the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau, that means the department Westerman leads has plenty of lives to save.

“We’ve got a significant amount more potential rescues at any given time because we have such a huge tourism trade,” he says. “You’re talking 100,000-plus when you factor in the tourists on the island and to be the only department responding with the type of land mass we have, it’s unique.”

As for the future needs of the department:

“For us it is the challenge to stay ahead of technology and growth,” he says. “One of our mantras is, ‘Leave it better than we found it.’ I’m sure every good chief has done that.

“Training is also very important. When you’re trying to make life-saving decisions on a moment’s notice, the more opportunities you’ve had to think through that process makes that process easier. Training is a very critical part of what we do … We train for house fires, rescues, even tying knots. We practice tying the knot with eyes closed, hanging upside down, so that no matter the situation, you can still tie it. Your life can depend on it.”

Compared with his work in Arizona at the Corona De Tucson Fire Department, where he was a volunteer EMT and firefighter, Westerman says the difference in saving residents in a place like Kaua’i is population, terrain and type of rescue. During his time in Corona DeTucson, rescues included saving people in abandoned mine shafts, whereas on Kaua’i hikers are at times airlifted off cliffs.

The chief with Capt. Charles Metivier, Kalani Abreu, Roy Constantino and Francisco Garcia accept the Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor in Chicago in 2010. International Association of Fire Chiefs photo

But he doesn’t like to take credit for the average 5,000 call responses and 180 rescue missions KFD handles annually.

“I don’t do the work,” Westerman says. “Our (emergency responders) do an exceptional job. Whether they’re hanging from the rope and rescuing somebody off the cliff, the water safety officers saving somebody on a rescue board, doing a prevention education with the kids or making sure payroll is right, it has to all come together or somebody’s not going to be happy.”

Perhaps yet another of his leadership skills, Westerman not only likes to recognize the work of his staff, but seems truly appreciative of what he calls his “dream job.”

“All the stresses that come with it are manageable,” he says. “I’ve got the best job in the world, in paradise,” he says.

Asked about his “perfect day,” the chief replied: “I’m on call 24/7, which doesn’t leave a lot of time spent with family … Last summer we took the kids to Disney World, and that was a perfect 10 days, to have all my kids and grandkids at the same place at the same time. That doesn’t happen every day.”

Originally from Spokane, Wash., Westerman’s stepfather was in the Air Force.

Somewhat of a military brat, Westerman was raised around the world. His first move was to Okinawa at the age of 5, and his second was to Cape Canaveral at age 7. Following that, the family moved to Insurlik, Turkey, before returning stateside, giving him the kind of experiences to make him appreciate different cultures.

“I loved it,” he says of moving around as a child. “It’s easy to adapt when you’re young.”

Thanks to Wooton, Westerman finally settled down on the Garden Isle, despite the fact that he was ready to join the Tucson Fire Department full time. But she was ready to come home to Kaua’i in July 1992.

Westerman says he arrived the Monday after Hurricane Iniki and was helping Wooton’s father repair houses and neighbors clean up properties on the North Shore when it became time to look for “real” work.

“My retirement date (from the Air Force) was Dec. 31, and as that drew near, Ann said, ‘You’d better get a job,'” he recalls.

They were living in Kekaha, so Westerman applied at the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) base to become a firefighter, and later became an operator and inspector. In 2005 he became the KFD chief. It’s a job his wife thinks suits him well, regardless of whether Westerman admits it.

The chief enjoys a ‘perfect day’ with his family. Photo courtesy Ann Wooton

“Bob is the most modest person I know,” Wooton says. “I really believe he cannot see what an awesome husband, father, grandfather and friend he is. He is a pretty awesome fire chief as well.”

Wooton says Westerman truly cares about the KFD ohana and wants to make it the “best place for them to work, along with making the island a safe place for our residents and visitors.”

The credit Westerman shares with the rest of the department is in part thanks to the work culture at KFD, built upon a strong, fraternal bond among the men and women who work there. Whether it’s the good oldfashioned hazing of recruits (they’re pretty much mandated to sing in costume at the County Christmas Holly Jolly every year) or the unwritten rule of having to buy lunch for the department if your name appears in the paper (thus supporting an environment of teamwork, not individualized glory), it seems every KFD tradition and rule is part of a code to be honored.

“I think of it being like a fraternity because we all depend on each other so much in the pursuit of our job,” Westerman says.

“We have to count on the fireman next to us to be able to save us. They have to tie the right knot, be fit enough to help pull out the latest victim, or drag a hose to put out the fire. When you depend that much on others, it’s like a family. That’s why we have that real camaraderie. No matter where you go as a fireman, whether at PMRF or at Kaua’i, you all have that same relationship because of that. It’s a pretty tight bond and friendship.”

When asked if he’d have to buy lunch for the department following publication of this article, Westerman laughs.

“Chief’s exempt from a few things.”