Steve Westermann is a 45-year veteran in the fire service. Forty-one of those years have been with the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District, the last 29 as chief.
“I’ve been blessed,” Westermann says.
Those years have included decades of high growth in Blue Springs and, now, in Grain Valley, and CJC has worked to keep up with more homes and businesses to protect, advances in technology, and expanded service.
But Westermann is quick to credit others for the district’s success.
“The only thing I’ve had about this is the vision,” he says. “The other piece is surrounding yourself with great people.”
Westermann, 62, is retiring in July. Deputy Chief Jeff Grote is set to step into the top role.
The district continues to post successes. A high classification from Insurance Services Offices in 2015 saves local businesses on insurance costs. Voters last year easily approved a bond issue to replace equipment, another thumbs up from what Westermann calls an “extremely supportive” community.
It’s the perfect time to leave, he says, but he adds, “It's bittersweet.”
Westermann was asked to volunteer with CJC when he was still in high school, and it changed his path.
“Then I got the bug, got hooked,” he said.
Blue Springs has grown from a city of fewer than 7,000 when Westermann came on board in the late 1960s to more than 50,000 today.
“I have to give credit to the school district for going with that,” he says.
Grain Valley, also in CJC coverage area, has a similar high-growth trend today. In fact, the district’s sixth fire station – perhaps five to 10 years out – is likely to go near Grain Valley North Middle School, the area that the Grain Valley School District has already identified as the site of a second high school in a few years.
A major change for CJC was adding medical calls in 1991. The district still had mostly volunteers and had to make the switch to full-time firefighters.
Westermann also sees challenges ahead. One is attaining the very top ISO rating, saving local businesses even more. Another is maintaining some specialized services that are regional assets. CJC has one of seven haz-mat teams in the area and one of four heavy rescue teams. The Kansas City area no longer gets the federal funding that helped equip and build those teams, so replacing equipment over time will fall on local taxpayers.
“We gave our word that we’d maintain this as a resource for the region,” Westermann said.
Westermann also was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs about 10 years ago, and he said the connections made through that group and others mean a flow of information and ideas coming back to CJC, to the benefit of local residents. Overall, he said, the payback is enormous.
The district has been able to do such things as build its own training center on U.S. 40. Not only has it become a regional center for other department to use, but Westermann estimates that CJC saves close to $300,000 a year that it would have to spend for outside EMS training.
Again, he circles back to the importance of the people around him.
“I’m proud to work with them,” he says.