Washougal Councilwoman Tia Robertson gets hands-on firefighting experience

Washington State Council of Firefighters hosts annual training event for elected officials

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Washougal City Councilwoman Tia Robertson enters a burning building during the Washington State Council of Firefighters' Fire Ops 101 event, held March 22, 2024, at the Volpentest Hammer Federal Training Center in Richland, Wash. (Contributed photo courtesy of Tia Robertson)

Tia Robertson warily eyed the ladder perched on the side of the eight-story building in front of her with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration, noting that the situation put two of her deep-seeded convictions into conflict with one another. On one hand, she is terrified of heights, but on the other hand, 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 Council member. “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. (Camas-Washougal Fire Department firefighter Aaron) Cliburn was looking at me, like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I’m like, ‘I gotta do it. Gotta do it.’ (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.”

Robertson overcame the challenges — and her fears – to complete the exercise, part of Fire Ops 101, an annual event put on by the Washington State Council of Firefighters (WSCFF) to provide elected officials and media members firefighting training, 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 WSCFF’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 (firefighters) have to do. There’s some really difficult situations they have to put themselves in that most people would never even think of.”

The 2024 event, held on March 22 at the Volpentest Hammer Training Facility in Richland, Washington, drew between 70 and 100 participants from around Washington state, according to Robertson.

“It is to bring awareness of what (firefighters) do, and it basically just makes their job easier,” she said. “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. This makes it easier for us as elected officials to understand what that need entails and why that money is needed, so if they come to us and say, ‘We need a new truck,’ or that kind of thing, I understand the reasons why.”

Robertson found out about the event thanks to her friendship with Camas city councilwoman Leslie Lewallen.

“My husband was looking through Facebook one day, and it was posted a year or so ago that Leslie had participated in this program,” said Robertson, who was elected to the City’s No. 2 council position in 2023. “He was like, ‘I wonder if they do this every single year? You could look into this.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He goes, ‘Email Chief (Cliff) Free and see what you can do.’ I (didn’t know about it at first) because I was just newly elected, and still kind of feeling things out. But I emailed Chief Free, and I think it was within 24 hours that he called me and said, ‘Yes, we will take you.’”

Robertson said she wanted to participate because she and her family members are “huge supporters of the police and fire and first responders in our area.”

“We always feel like they need more than what they are getting, and I always want to make sure I can get them that. I (focused on) that when I ran for city council,” Robertson said. “But honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up. I knew that I was going to get a first-hand experience. I’ve never been in that position before; honestly, I’ve never had to deal with first responders or law enforcement in my life, so it was going to be a new experience for me.

“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 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.

“You’re going into a burning building,” she said. “They had audio of a baby screaming, fire, smoke detectors going off, things like that. 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 (after I was done) because I could not stand up after wearing all that gear.”

She then tackled a vehicle extrication exercise.

“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 to put out a series of fires at different locations, including a dumpster, a vehicle and a house.

“We worked on a couch fire, and then crawled upstairs on our hands and knees upstairs and put out a fire that caught on a bed,” she said. “We had a ‘victim’ on the second floor that needed CPR, so they showed us how to use the CPR equipment. We put the body on a stretcher and hauled it down the two flights of stairs and put it into an ambulance, and then rode in the ambulance, all while trying to keep the victim alive by providing oxygen and hooking up IVs and things like that.”

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

“That’s where my legs gave out,” she said. “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.’ 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.”

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

“They gave me a chainsaw, and I had to cut open a roof to allow smoke to exit the building,” she said. “The roof was on a hillside, so thankfully, I didn’t have to climb up a building to do that one. It was basically chainsaw into plywood.”

For her efforts, Robertson 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 told the Council members. “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. We’re so appreciative that (she was) willing to step up and come be a part of what it is that we call a career and a love.”

Free added that Robertson “had a very good weekend, and learned a lot about what we do, how we do it, stressors that we are under and what tools we need to effectively do the 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. “One of our city council members, David Fritz, has actually said that he wants to do it, and 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.”