HOTSEAT- Fired up: Chief Werner's career of a lifetime

Charles Werner

Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner doesn't flinch as two sirens zoom by his office on  Ridge Street. "I hear a fire engine and then an ambulance," he explains calmly, "so I guess it's an EMS call."

Werner says that when he first volunteered as a firefighter in Harrisonburg at age 14, "We didn't do EMS calls." Today, 50 percent of all calls that come into the fire station are for emergency medical services.

Werner became an emergency medical technician at 15– the youngest in the state, he says, adding, "Now they don't let you be an EMT at 15." 

That's not all that's changed since Werner grew up with an uncle who was fire chief, another who was a firefighter, and his own father, who let him ride along on rescue squad calls.

He still remembers the day he arrived at an accident scene at which a tractor trailer had overturned on top of a car, killing the father of a friend.

The die was cast for a career in fire fighting when he entered a building intentionally burned for fire training, testing his abilities to maintain calm in a hazardous environment. "If you let go of that hose," he warns, "you may not find your way out."

Today, fire departments respond to hazmat incidents and terrorist threats– and with equipment that Werner's father's generation only dreamed of, such as thermal imaging cameras for fires where there's zero visibility. In the past three years, the Charlottesville Fire Department has hauled in $7.1 million in grants to pay for a 21st-century, state-of-the-art department. That includes interoperability equipment, so that responders from different agencies can talk to each other in an emergency, and a new gym– to be located in Werner's old office. 

Werner took over as chief July 2, 2005, and the disasters began.

"The first day we were hit with a wet micro burst and trees down," he recounts. "The second day was a two-alarm house fire, and I arrived first. The third day there was flooding from tropical storm Cindy."

Prepared for disaster, Werner claims he wasn't surprised by the political storm that erupted last year when he solicited city funds for the fire department's own ambulances and emergency responders to supplement the efforts of the all-volunteer Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad. 

"We're not trying to take over the rescue squad," he insists. "Our desire is to augment." He would do things differently today, he says: he'd use a citizen's committee sooner rather than later to support his point that response times during peak periods needed to improve. "There would have been a better reception," he believes.

On a tour through the fire station,Werner remembers the days when firefighters rode exposed to the elements instead of in the air-conditioned, enclosed cabs with headsets. 

As for riding on the back of the fire truck, "It's fun, but it's not safe," says Werner. "My arm was nearly frozen once riding on the back of a truck to Scottsville."

Age: 48

Why here? Career in the fire department. I was hired directly out of high school and was the first firefighter hired at 18.

What's worst about living here? Housing costs and the need for affordable housing

Favorite hangout? The firehouse

Most overrated virtue? Patience  

People would be surprised to know: I enjoy writing articles for public safety magazines and hope to write a fiction thriller book in the near future... Perhaps you could 'Hook' me up with John Grisham for a few good starting tips?

What would you change about yourself? I'd get in better shape, which I'm working on. I've lost 26 pounds in the past three months through diet and exercise.

Proudest accomplishment? Becoming the fire chief here in Charlottesville. It's the greatest honor to work with the best and most dedicated firefighters in the world. 

People find most annoying about you: I'm a perfectionist and a workaholic.

Whom do you admire? Dr. Richard F. Edlich. Even after contracting multiple sclerosis, he continues to work, conduct research, publish articles in medical journals and challenge others (including me) to work harder to make the world a better place.

Favorite book? That's a toss up between The Firm and Red Storm Rising. I'm a huge fan of John Grisham and Tom Clancy.

Subject that causes you to rant? Poor customer service

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Chance to ride on the Space Shuttle

Biggest 21st-century creep out?  The possibility of pandemic flu

What do you drive? At work, a Ford Hybrid Escape 4WD. At home, a Ford Taurus X AWD (Crossover)

In your car CD player right now: Rascal Flatts– Melt

Next journey? Hopefully to Italy with my wife

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? As a child, I painted our neighbor's garage with multiple color spray paints.

Regret: Not traveling overseas more with my wife before having our children

Favorite comfort food: Roast turkey with gravy

Always in your refrigerator: Diet Cherry 7-Up

Must-see TV:  24 or American Idol (quite a contrast, aye?)

Describe a perfect day. At a house on the beach with my wife, kids, and dog. We're all on boogie boards riding the waves while our new puppy chases us.

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm Secret Agent 007 (with all the gadgets) protecting the world from all foreign enemies.

Who'd play you in the movie? Bruce Willis

Most embarrassing moment? During my first week at work training with the fire department, Jim Carpenter captured me covered from head to toe in foam for the Daily Progress.

Best advice you ever got? For true success, find a job/career you love and would do for free. (I was a volunteer firefighter, after all.)  

Favorite bumper sticker? "Without ME, it's just AWESO."


1 comment

A true professional in a service where leadership is paramont. He's it! He's involved but we would like to get him involved in the Institution of Fire Engineers, then we can get him to travel to international conferences.