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News / Clark County News

Firefighting training at Fire Ops 101 was ‘eye-opening’ for Washougal City Council member

Annual event gives officials, media an idea what job entails

By Doug Flanagan, Camas-Washougal Post-Record
Published: June 22, 2024, 6:10am
3 Photos
Washougal City Councilor Tia Robertson holds a firehose during the Washington State Council of Firefighters&rsquo; Fire Ops 101 event March 21 in Richland.
Washougal City Councilor Tia Robertson holds a firehose during the Washington State Council of Firefighters’ Fire Ops 101 event March 21 in Richland. (Tia Robertson) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — Tia Robertson eyed the ladder perched on the side of the eight-story building with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration. On one hand, she is terrified of heights; on the other, she is loath to turn away from a good-natured goading.

So up the ladder she went.

“At first I was going to do it without my gear,” said Robertson, a Washougal city councilor. “But (one of the firefighters) said, ‘I dare you,’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, he knows me. I cannot pass on a dare.’”

So the pack went back on.

“(Firefighters) have got to do it. They don’t have a choice. And the job of that firefighter is not just making up the ladder; their job is to do what’s at the top of the building,” she said.

Robertson overcame her fears to complete the exercise, part of Fire Ops 101, an annual event put on by the Washington State Council of Firefighters to provide firefighting training to elected officials and media members. The training offers perspective on how crews operate and the challenges that firefighters face on the job.

The event is “a great way to provide opinion leaders and policy-makers with hands-on experience of the time-critical, labor-intensive, highly technical nature of the job,” according to the the council’s website.

“‘Eye-opening’ is the only phrase I can think of to describe it,” Robertson said. “It was an amazing experience. Everybody thinks it’s cool to fight fires, but a lot of people don’t know about the background of what they have to do. There’s some really difficult situations they have to put themselves in that most people would never even think of.”

The March event, held at the Volpentest Hammer Training Facility in Richland, drew between 70 and 100 participants from around the state, according to Robertson.

“They come to us all the time saying they need money. We always see on our ballots that we need more money for the fire department or police department, and a lot of people don’t know what that means — they just know the fire department’s asking for money,” Robertson said. “This makes it easier for us as elected officials to understand what that need entails and why that money is needed.

“Having experienced it, I have a whole new level of appreciation for what they do. There’s no way to explain it. I couldn’t possibly be expected to go through what they have to go through every single day and just say, ‘I support you guys’ (and do nothing else). Support is one thing, but experience is completely different.”

With Camas-Washougal Fire Department firefighter Aaron Cliburn serving as her “shadow,” Robertson completed a variety of scenarios that a firefighter might encounter on a given day, beginning with a search-and-rescue operation.

“They had audio of a baby screaming, fire, smoke detectors going off,” she said. “And it was a zero-visibility situation. We went in on our hands and knees, and you couldn’t see, so you had your eyes closed, and you could only do it by feel. You had your right hand on the wall the entire time, going around the entire house and feeling around, and you had to find a ‘victim’ — in this case, a 175-pound dummy — and pull them to safety on your hands and knees wearing about 60 pounds of turnout gear and your oxygen tank and everything. I had two guys try to pull me up because I could not stand up after wearing all that gear.”

Vehicle extrication

Robertson then tackled a vehicle extrication.

“I cut open the side of a full-size van, actually taking the entire side of the van off to access the victim inside, using Jaws of Life and glass-breaking material and things like that,” she said. “Another firefighter helped me balance the Jaws of Life because they are pretty heavy.”

From there, she helped put out a series of fires at different locations, including a dumpster, a vehicle and a house.

Robertson then moved on to the exercise that she feared the most: the ladder climb.

“I was probably about 10 or 15 steps up, and I was just screaming, ‘The mask is not working. I’m hyperventilating. I’m terrified.’ I’m already terrified of heights, but I pushed myself through it. I told Cliburn, ‘If I ever get to that point, just scream at me. Army-drill me. Tell me to go, go, go,’” she said. “Unfortunately, he had to do it the entire time all the way up, but I did make it. It took me probably longer than anybody to get up that ladder and onto the top of the building.”

‘She just dove right in’

For her final task, Robertson was asked to complete a roof ventilation exercise.

For her efforts, she was awarded with a certificate of completion during the Washougal City Council’s meeting on May 28.

“She just dove right in, and she did great,” Cliburn said. “She did everything the way that it was designed to do, in gear. She did it all. You should congratulate her, because she did a bang-up job.”

Cliburn added that he hopes to recruit more elected officials to participate in the program in future years, a sentiment that Robertson echoed.

“I have actually already recommended several people to do this,” she said. “I’m hoping I can get some more people from the city of Camas to do it, and I want to recommend media (members) to do it. I really want to bring that awareness, especially with the money that we’re putting into our stations now and the Regional Fire Authority that’s about to (be put into place) so that people understand why we’re doing these things, and that it’s not just another property tax.”

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