After nearly 40 years with the Key Peninsula Fire Department, Battalion Chief Chuck West is retiring. He started as a volunteer in 1982, was hired as a fire fighter in 1986, and now, he said, “It’s time to let the new generation come in and make their mark. When I see that the buildings I helped design need new roofs I realize how long I have been here.”
The oldest of five, West lived with his grandparents in Tacoma’s Hilltop when his parents divorced. When he was 14 his father remarried and the blended family — his stepmother also had five children — moved to 5 acres on Peacock Hill in Gig Harbor. A stepbrother soon joined the Coast Guard, making West the oldest boy left in the house. “I was the human rototiller — meaning I used a shovel. We raised everything, with a vegetable garden and rotating animals,” he said.
He credits his work ethic with the work on the farm and his caretaking position as oldest in the household. “Adversity brings lessons, and I’ve learned a lot,” he said.
A driver’s license and a budding high school romance with a Key Peninsula girl led him to discover the KP. After graduation in 1976, he moved with a buddy to a rental on Yeazell Road. He worked in restaurants, got on-the-job construction training working for a neighbor, and then worked for a company building log homes. He wanted to see the country, sold everything and drove with a friend to Florida. He worked odd jobs, partied hard, and after two years decided it was time to move back home.
His first job upon return was hauling material for an electrician; he liked West’s work ethic and by the next day he was inside working as an apprentice. “I always felt like no matter what the job is I will be the best at what I do,” West said.
In 1982, during a poker game, friends roped him into joining the Key Peninsula Fire Department as a volunteer. The educational opportunities, including EMT training, intrigued him. He went on to serve in leadership roles with the volunteer association and took charge of their annual fundraiser — a fireworks show at Home on Joe’s Bay (Von Geldern Cove) to raise money for equipment. “The fireworks display was from a barge, so it was safe,” West said. But the crowds on the shore got too big and so, a victim of its success, the event was discontinued.
In 1986 he was hired as a fire fighter by the department. Over the years he served in many capacities — lieutenant, training officer, technical services chief with some community liaison responsibilities. He returned to front line work as a battalion chief in 2006. “When I started, we had two people on a shift, with at least one of those being a career person. Only the Key Center station had career staff. The others were staffed by volunteers. We had a BLS (basic life service) ambulance we called the Guppy,” West said. “Salaries weren’t high — the work was all about passion for the community. It was a tight group.”
The department continued to grow. Paramedics became an integral part of the team. Now, he said, there are nine people on a shift with career staff at the Wauna, Home and Longbranch stations. The Key Center station houses administration and the volunteers.
KPFD Assistant Fire Chief Hal Wolverton’s career started almost 30 years ago under the guidance of Chuck West when he was a lieutenant. “I was then, and remain to this day, amazed at the level of dedication Chuck has for his community,” he said. “I try to emulate his level of compassion with each decision made every day.”
Prevention Specialist/Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit was first recruited as a volunteer by West when they both attended an Evergreen Elementary School open house. “He has been that fire guy, that person for the department that has been that face for the community,” she said. Nesbit had recently divorced, and West was her family’s secret Santa that year. “He knew things were tough,” she said.
“He does that extra mile. He has worked overtime, but it hasn’t been work. One woman shared that when her husband passed Chuck came the next day and just gave her a hug. He has impacted a lot of lives. When people call, they want to know if Chuck is working,” Nesbit said. “His retirement will be a loss because he has championed love and care of the community. That is great mentorship.”
The shift structure of work at the fire department allowed West to start his own business, Chuck West Construction, which now has four employees and does remodeling and new construction.
One of the first places he worked on was a cabin near Evergreen Elementary School where he lived and raised his two sons with his first wife. His oldest son Zach died in a car accident when he was 21. Alex, now 33, is in the Coast Guard and lives in Alaska with his family. West’s second marriage ended when his wife got deeply involved in Scientology. He explored it to see why she was so interested, and he appreciated some of the aspects of self-empowerment. “But in the end, I thought it was all about getting people’s money,” West said. She and their daughter Lilly now live in Great Britain, though West hopes Lilly will return to the area.
West met his wife Marsha when he was involved in community outreach for the fire department and she was editor of the Key Peninsula News. They married in 2013. His stepson Sean graduated from Peninsula High this year.
West has been active as a community volunteer for decades. He joined the Key Peninsula Community Council in its early years, served as president and has resumed that role recently. He wants to be sure that the council maintains an office in Key Center and can continue to offer local space for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department there. He helped establish the Key Free Clinic and is its board president. He joined the Pierce County Flood Control Advisory Board to assure that the Key Peninsula has representation at the county level.
In 2019 he was elected to the Peninsula School District Board of Directors. “I really want to represent everyone,” West said. “When I go to board meetings every other person in the room went to college. They need the voice of someone who didn’t go to college and has been successful. I want to create productive members of society whether they go to college or become welders.”
West doesn’t plan to slow down following retirement. He will continue his construction business. He owns a piece of property in Key Center he would like to develop. And he will stay involved with his board work. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
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