Raising Arizona Kids

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

SHEILA ROBERTS: Ready to respond, wherever & whenever

Sheila RobertsPhoenix Fire Battalion Chief Sheila Roberts talks about tough calls, saving lives and getting along with the guys.

You became a firefighter when the profession didn’t exactly welcome women.

A friend of mine worked for the Mesa Fire Department. He said that the men hated girl firefighters. I said, “Are you kidding me? You wouldn’t hate me. I get along with you guys!” So I tried it, took the physical. May of 1987 was when I first became a firefighter.

What does a battalion chief do?

A battalion chief is kind of the middleman between the management and the field. The city is broken up into different battalions. My battalion consists of six fire stations, and basically I manage the captains of those stations.

What was it like for you when you finally got in?

When I was in the academy, I performed well, so my reputation was good. I’ve always been able to get along with men; I’ve never had a problem. I’ve always been accepted, at least to my face, which is the only thing that really matters to me. I always knew they had my back, as well as I would have theirs.

Talk about a call you’ve responded to lately.

One of the most recent cases I went on was a big, huge fire out in Scottsdale. An 8,000-square-foot custom home. Beautiful. Watched it burn to the ground. And it was in the news, and it was because of foreclosure, because of the economic situation that we have right now. I don’t know (who) set it on fire, but it broke my heart to know all the work that went into that to just watch it burn to the ground.

So you try to save possessions as well as lives?

We do our best to get their belongings, their memory things, their computers or their photo albums as best we can, pictures off the wall, to get those out as best we can if there’s nobody to save.

How about the calls where you are trying to save a human life? What’s tough?

The calls that really get to you are…any kind of child. Suicides get to me, and drownings. We have to get in there and do our work to do the best we can to help this person, and then afterwards, that’s when we have a chance to reflect. Of course, you go home and tell your kids how much you love them.

And do those difficult calls happen often?

We have saved so many lives. I went through how many calls I’ve probably been on. Probably 15,000 calls, and I just can’t even tell you how many people that we’ve saved. Everybody, all the paramedics, all the EMTs—they really are making a difference in peoples’ lives.

Has seeing what you’ve seen over the years affected the way that you parent?

I’d say yes, because I’ve seen lots of kids flipping out of backs of pickup trucks, speeding, drunk. I try to talk with my kids about their problems—talk to them every day. They’re awesome kids. [Roberts has sons ages 25, 16 and 12.]

Drugs, alcohol, driving under the influence—what have you learned through going out on calls that you’d like to pass on to parents about keeping kids safe?

There was one call. A house fire. It wasn’t on my shift. A kid was spending the night at his friend’s house. They were making popcorn at midnight. They thought they’d shut it [the power] off. Everybody made it out of the house except for the kid’s friend that spent the night, because he was unfamiliar with the house and couldn’t get out. They pulled him out of one of the back windows. He had passed. They worked him as best they could, but he didn’t make it. Whenever kids go over to someone else’s house, they should familiarize themselves with the house, how to get out.

So what would you like the public to know about firefighters that maybe we don’t know?

Firefighters are there to help communicate. If you have any questions, ask. Duty calls wherever, whenever. Just know that we’re ready to respond and we’re ready to help. RAK


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