The Picture Butte and District Chamber of Commerce will honour West at their annual banquet on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. West, who recently retired as fire chief in the community, admits he didn’t see it coming when the chamber’s Everett Tanis showed up at his home with the news of the award.
“I was shocked all right.”
It will not be the first time he has been honoured by the chamber, he was fire chief when the chamber presented the Citizen of the Year award to the entire fire department, honouring all of the members at their annual banquet. He said he never thought he would be honoured individually.
West said his entire family is looking forward to the evening.
Born and raised in Lethbridge, West moved with his family to Calgary when he was in Grade 7 after his father was transferred for work.
“We spent up until I met Shelley (his wife) in Calgary.”
After they married and had decided to start a family they moved back down to Lethbridge and then out to Picture Butte before their first child was born. West already had two daughters from his first marriage, Samantha and Robberta and with Shelley expanded their family to include Chelsey, Amy, Frank, Casey and Katie.
The family has called Picture Butte home for almost three decades. West joined the fire department in 1988 when Amy, who is now a captain with the fire department as well as emergency services team lead for the Town of Picture Butte, was just a year old.
The five younger West children have all followed in their father’s footsteps into emergency services. All but the youngest, Katie, joined the local fire department as soon as they were old enough at the age of 18 and have gone on to serve in different areas of emergency services.
Chelsey, served as an RCMP officer before her death in a collision while on duty. She actually started out working for the RCMP in forensics before taking her training at depot.
Amy also joined the fire department and became an EMT before taking the position with the town along with her continued service on the fire department. Frank is an EMT and a captain on the fire department and Casey is an EMR and a lieutenant with the department.
Katie is currently in New Brunswick studying criminal psychology but plans to transfer to the University of Lethbridge in the new year.
West said he is proud of the family legacy he has helped to build in emergency services. When asked about why they all followed him onto the fire department he is quick to point out it has been a part of their lives and a natural step for them.
“My kids all grew up with me being part of the fire department.”
He said they were used to him taking off to answer calls and being part of something that was a service to the community.
“They were proud of what I did and wanted to do it themselves.”
Both of his older daughters went the IT route working with computers and technology. Samantha works for the U of L while Robberta works for an oil company.
No matter what West has tackled in his career, he worked 17 years in transportation with Palliser Regional Schools before retiring, or through his volunteer service with the fire department he credits his wife for making it all possible.
“She’s been my backbone.”
“If it wasn’t for her I don’t know where I’d be.”
He said she has always supported his involvement with the fire department.
“She’s probably going to miss it just as much as I will.”
Looking back on his years as a firefighter, West said it was Dave Feist, now acting chief, who got him interested in joining emergency services. He had already been a firefighter for a couple of years when he got West to join.
In the end it was a bale fire in a field on the edge of town which gave him the final push. Unfortunately a young boy was caught in the fire and died. Being a father of young children it hit home and he realized he wanted to serve the community and be a part of the fire department.
“Bill Vogt was the fire chief at the time.”
He said he had no idea when he joined up that at some point he would be chief. He praised the service Vogt gave to the department, spanning close to four decades. He also noted current firefighter Dan Tolley now has over 40 years of service on the department.
West said he would have liked to have continued on the department but his health has been an issue for the last few years.
“It’s my health that made me make the decision,” he said.
He said he felt he couldn’t continue to properly fill the role as chief. He was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis 10 years ago and is concentrating now on his health.
For him deciding to retire was a catch 22.
“I know I’m really going to miss it.”
And as his health improves he knows he’s going to wish he was back on the department.
Over the years, West has witnessed his share of tough calls and said years ago, working with Feist they implemented a program to help their firefighters deal with the more traumatic calls. They defuse right after the call and then follow up with a debriefing within 24 hours.
“Before that there was nothing in place,” he said unless a special team was called in to help the fire department.
“We took it on to handle it in house.”
Handling the long calls, the firefighting that last for hours is all about getting the job done and then crashing.
“The adrenalin keeps you going.”
He said any emergency call involving a fatality is always hard for everyone but vocalizing it, talking it through with another firefighter or your spouse does help.
“You have to talk about it to your spouse, they need to know what you’re going through.”
He said in recent years he has enjoyed working with other departments on regional projects and courses. He said he has also enjoyed working with the Lethbridge County to build up the department’s fleet and to get a new communication system in place.
Developing an ambulance service for Picture Butte almost two decades ago is also a highlight of West’s time on the fire department. The town remains one of the few smaller communities in the region that still operates its own ambulance service.
Sitting in the basement offices of the fire department, surrounded by trophies, plaques and other awards collected over the years by the department, West said it is the friendships he has made over the years that will be stick with him.
“They are family to me.”
He said he told them they weren’t going to be able to get rid of him easily and he plans to still come around to visit on a regular basis.
He appreciates the support he has received from the fire department over the years both as fire chief and in his personal life, dealing with this health issues and the lose of his daughter.
“It’s just a great bunch of guys.”
Now that he is retired and his health is on the mend he hopes to get out with his new truck and trailer for some traveling with his wife. He said he’s actually feeling better than he has in years. After several surgeries he noted things seem to be working out.
“The body is an amazing thing.”