By Vanessa Kahin
Retiring Fire Chief Ray Westerman favors one word when it comes to describing the changes made to the Clovis Fire Department during his 39-year run: Expansion.
Westerman, too, has come a long way from the 18-year-old recent high school graduate who joined the department Jan. 16, 1975; his life paralleling the organization he helped grow. He is set to retire from the CFD on May 19, 2014.
“Chief Westerman has been a great leader and, as an integral part of the fire department, he will be missed,” said Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas in a press release.
Westerman’s long and successful firefighting career began with a suggestion he received not long after graduating from Melrose High School in 1974.
“I’d never given it any thought,” Westerman said of becoming a firefighter. “One of the Clovis Fire Department’s employees told me about it, and encouraged me to put in my application, and I did.”
Westerman chuckled when he recalled his salary at the time: $592.80 a month. He would not comment on how the salary compared in 1975 dollars, but rather considered the entire situation, giving it a positive assessment.
“It was an adequate salary for an untrained 18-year-old,” Westerman said. “It provided me with everything I needed.”
Westerman’s first promotion came in October 1978, when he took the title of engineer. The position involved driving a fire truck and leading a team. In 1994, Westerman became a shift lieutenant. With about 22 people on the shift, Westerman said the position gave him the skills necessary to lead the department.
“I was responsible for overseeing personnel (and) engineers,” Westerman said. “I learned a lot during that period of time.” He was promoted to assistant fire chief on April 30, 2003, and fire chief on Oct. 28, 2004.
A 39-year career in firefighting could not go without its daunting moments, Westerman said, admitting that several such situations came to his mind. However, he hesitated to refer to firefighters as ever being fearful.
“The training and the equipment we’re provided with diminishes that fear,” he said. “That’s what pulls (firefighters) through.”
Service to the community is key to being a firefighter, Westerman said, before he shifted the focus on those who are going through a harrowing experience.
“Many times, (firefighters) help people during what could be the worst day of their life. To see the relief in someone’s eyes is a very rewarding experience,” he said.
Westerman said he is proud to have been a part of the growth the CFD experienced over the years. When he first began firefighting, the department only had two stations. Today, it has seven. There is now a multi-story burn building where the department can set live fires so firefighters may perform live drills.
The department has also expanded to include a four-story tower where cold training — lessons in firefighting that do not involve fires — are performed. Such training includes rappelling down the building, as well as search and rescue drills.
Westerman lives just outside of Clovis with his wife, Laurie. His children, Crystal and Michael, live in Clovis along with his five grandchildren. He said he will spend his retirement enjoying the company of his family.
“We’re just going to enjoy our years,” he said. “Every one of them is a gift.”
He also said he is certain the CFD will continue to grow to meet the needs of the community.
“I have made some lifelong friends over the course of my career,” Westerman said. “(It’s been) an honor to serve the community, represent members of the fire department and serve as their chief.”