The position went unfulfilled for some time while Ernest commanded the brigade as Acting Captain. When the war began Ernest, by now in his 57th year, volunteered for service with the British Red Cross and was appointed as voluntary stretcher-leader at Northwood House which had been requisitioned by the War Office as a military hospital. Around the same time his youngest son Mendl who had followed his father in to the brigade, departed for service overseas with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Mendl was one of thirteen Cowes firemen who the brigade lost to the various units departing for war.
Whilst Ernest energetically engaged in his new role, he managed to combine it in his busy life as Acting Captain of the brigade and manager of the waterworks. In May of 1915 he quite literally combined his roles when implementing a fire drill at Northwood that involved the hospital, the water supply and the brigade.
The loss of so many skilled young firefighters represented a great challenge for Ernest through the years of the war and in 1915, the period of the greatest loss of manpower, he was especially challenged. Recruitment in Cowes followed similar lines to that of other brigades around the Island; firemen who had retired returned amid the patriotic fervour and were coupled to a handful of volunteers who might normally have not been accepted for fire service duties. As always Ernest's ethos was drill, drill, drill and his keen eye for correctness was evidenced at a serious fire in November.
On the 27th three properties were involved in fire at Bath Road. The conflagration was fearsome as the ad-hoc brigade, still equipped with a manually operated fire pump, arrived to find flames pouring out of a ladies tailors and outfitters, Albert Restaurant and Hope House. The yield of the fire threatened the many other properties in close proximity and many residents began removing their furniture and possessions in the expectation of fire engulfing the entire street.
The Cowes County Press correspondent who attended the scene remarked of the brigade; They had a formidable task, but under the capable and tactful guidance of Acting Captain E. Willsteed they did most effective work.
This understates the miracle that Willsteed and his firemen managed to prevent any further fire spread in the face of a horrifying scale of conflagration. The incident and the brigade's part in it were to receive the approval of the Town Council when they sat two days later, but it was the formal report that sealed Ernest's future.
His former Captain, Thomas Richardson, now sitting in Council, delivered a report on 14 December that reflected a glowing praise for Acting Captain Willsteed. Richardson finished his report with the recommendation that the matter of the brigade's captaincy be no longer held in abeyance, Willsteed should be appointed as captain without hesitation.
This was unanimously agreed and fourteen years after previously resigning the role, Willsteed was compelled to step up and formally take the reins he'd practically held for most of that period anyway. On this occasion the Council went a step further and removed the phrase honorary from the title and rewrote the brigade rules to ensure that from then on the captain would be paid for his time as his men were.