Female fire fighting force

Local women demonstrate dedication to saving lives

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Carly Shears and Charlie Dawson are among the female firefighters in the Camas-Washougal area. Shears recently joined the Washougal Fire Department as a volunteer, while Dawson -- a volunteer battalion chief -- has served with the WFD for 20 years.

The room nicknamed the ‘man cave’ – with recliners and a TV – inside the Washougal fire station could be in need of a new description – as the fire department has welcomed its second volunteer female firefighter.

Carly Shears, 29, recently completed the firefighter academy and is studying to earn a paramedic degree at Portland Community College.

She has been with the WFD for four months.

“The rewards of fire fighting are abundant,” Shears said. “I am able to dedicate my life to serving others, in making this my career. How I am able to represent the department I work for – and the service as a whole – is beyond compare. Integrity, honor and moral character are just a few of the traits I get to stand for.

“This career is both mentally and physically demanding and rather exciting at times,” she added. “The challenges that are presented with fire fighting are also what I love about it though. The biggest challenge – especially as a woman – would be my physical abilities. Being a firefighter only gives me one more reason to stay strong and healthy. It’s a great feeling to be able to keep up with all the boys.”

Shears is also a self-employed photographer and a single mother of three.

Charlie Dawson

Charlie Dawson has served as a volunteer firefighter with the WFD for 20 years. She has been a battalion chief for five years and a secretary/treasurer for the volunteers for 18 years.

Prior to moving to Washougal, Dawson helped start an ambulance service in North Idaho.

“It is one of those things that gets in your blood, and you’re hooked and want to keep giving,” she said.

The rewards of fire fighting include words of thanks from people she helps and from families of those who were not able to be saved.

Dawson is 57.

“As you get older, it is hard to keep up with the younger firefighters,” she said.

Other challenges of volunteering include the weekly meetings at the fire station.

“Continuing education is like a job,” Dawson said. “Every Wednesday night belongs to the fire department.”

Other challenges involved in fire fighting include extra training on weekends and “responding to calls at all hours and sometime leaving a family gathering to help others – even if the calls turn out to be non life threatening,” she added. “The biggest thing to make a successful firefighter is having the support of your husband or wife or family members in general.”

Dawson said it can be a unique challenge being a female firefighter – based on public perception.

“People see you wearing a department shirt, and they ask if your husband is a firefighter or if you’re just the secretary,” she said.

The fire department shirt does, however, have its rewards.

“When you see a complete stranger in the store and they ask if you are a member of the department and look you in the eye and say ‘Thank you for what you do,’ it makes you very proud to wear the shirt and be part of a great group,” Dawson said.

She also appreciates support from within the fire department.

“It is great to have both older and younger brothers, and you know if you need help you have people you can count on to be there,” Dawson said.

She lost her job at Ferguson Industrial Plastics in March 2009, when the company reduced its staff due to the economy.

Callie Fraser

Callie Fraser is the first and only female firefighter/paramedic in the Camas Fire Department.

She has been with the CFD for two years.

“As long as you’re a hard worker, it all comes down to work ethics,” Fraser said. “Everybody does the same amount of work. Everybody shares the workload.

“All the guys have been great, and the department has been accepting,” she added.

Fraser, 28, attended a three month fire academy sponsored by Clark County Fire District 6, the Vancouver Fire Department and the CFD. She has earned fire certification through a Department of Defense Academy in Texas.

Prior to working in Camas, Fraser was a firefighter and paramedic for the Midway Fire District, near Pensacola, Fla. for two years.

She enjoys being able to help people in their time of need.

“They completely trust us and expect us to solve their problems,” Fraser said. “It’s really gratifying. There is a purpose behind it. Running into a burning building is one heck of an adrenaline rush.”

Georgia Porter

Georgia Porter is a part-time firefighter and EMT-IV tech for East County Fire and Rescue and a part-time EMT-IV tech with AMR.

She has been with ECFR for almost 2 1/2 years.

“In high school, I decided to try the fire cadet program because I was curious what fire fighting was all about,” Porter said “The two years as fire cadet had me hooked.”

The desire to be able to help someone when they really need it inspired her to become a firefighter.

“I get to work as part of a team of emergency responders,” Porter said. “I am continually challenged to learn new information or new skills to try and better myself.”

That includes training, attending classes, self study, and reviewing previous emergency calls.

Porter, 22, said the physical aspect of being a firefighter can be a challenge.

“I have to work hard to maintain the physical ability to do the job,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge, and it has helped motivate me even more to stay physically fit.”

Paula Knapp

Paula Knapp has been a volunteer firefighter with ECFR for seven years. She has held the title of volunteer apparatus operator for six months.

Knapp said fire fighting can be a lot of hard work with training, physical agility requirements, skills tests and written exams. There are also rewards.

“There is the camaraderie of being part of a group and knowing that you could be helping someone on the worst day of their lives,” she said.

“I didn’t choose it as a career,” Knapp added. “I chose to be a volunteer as a way to be connected to the community.”

The physical aspects of being a firefighter can be different for females, she said.

“We deal with a lot of heavy equipment and gear,” Knapp added. “Also being vertically challenged can be a problem.”

She is also a retail music business owner and childcare provider.

“I just like doing what I do and try to put my all into it,” Knapp said.