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The 22nd Annual World Championship Firefighter Combat Challenge hits Vegas
What a sight. Despite the balmy 70-degree weather outside the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, dozens of firefighters have gathered in the vast parking lot, all decked out in heavy gear including helmets, coats, pants, gloves and reinforced steel-toed boots. They’re roasting and stand to get hotter still — despite the lack of an actual fire — as some 200 teams from all over the U.S. and Canada, as well as squads from countries such as New Zealand, Germany and Slovenia, prepare to compete in the 22nd Annual Firefighter Combat Challenge World Championship.
“My goal this year is to win the individual over-40 championship,” says firefighter Russell Krasnesky, 44, team captain for the always-contending McKinney Combat Challenge Team of McKinney, Texas. “Our goal as a team is for everyone to run their best times and let the chips fall where they may.”
Before arriving here, teams from around the world competed at regional and national competitions, all featuring five sequential tasks that simulate a fire scenario: the high-rise hose carry, hoist hose, forcible entry, hose drag and victim rescue.
“ESPN called it the toughest two minutes in sports,” says Ron Beckman, former Albuquerque firefighter/Challenge competitor turned operations and fleet manager/course official for the Challenge. “But some people do it faster. The fastest guy in the world, Bobby Russell from Overland Park, Kan., did it in one minute, 19 and 2/100 of a second.”
So let the fun begin.
To the rescue
To start, two competitors from opposing teams strap on their Scott Safety air paks and line up before adjacent staircases at the base of a 45-foot, five-story tower.
After a countdown, lights flash, sirens sound and the firefighters pick up their respective high-rise packs (containing 42 feet of hose), throw it on their shoulders and start hot-footing it up the tower. (Note: skipping stairs is allowed on the way up but not on the way down).
Once atop the tower, the firefighters throw their packs in a basket, lean over the rail and grab onto a thick rope running the length of the tower and hoist the attached donut roll (a large, coiled hose) from the ground in a fast, furious flurry.
Post hoist, firefighters will move a 160-pound steel beam a distance of five feet using a shot mallet, run a course, grab a heavy hose, drag it 75 feet through some swinging doors, spray a target, throw the hose down and, fin
ally, pick up and drag a 175-pound, 6-foot tall mannequin (Rescue Randy) 106 feet to the finish line.
“That’s my favorite part because it’s the end of the race,” says Krasnesky. “It’s also my least favorite because you’re completely exhausted by then.”
The spark that started it all
The Challenge competitions, which take place in cities from Ottawa, Canada to Deerfield Beach, Fla., and from Pendleton, Ore., to Tyler, Texas, are a thrill for competitors and spectators alike. But according to Beckman, it’s more than a simple sports contest. “It’s competition with a purpose,” he says.
Indeed, the Challenge evolved from a very practical place. In 1975, Chief David Gratz, director of Fire/Rescue Services in Montgomery County, Md., approached University of Maryland researchers to develop a physical ability test for fire department applicants. After obtaining funding from the U.S. Fire Administration, and with assistance from the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute (MFRI), the researchers, including Challenge founder Dr. Paul Davis, created and implemented a test where firefighters, wearing full protective gear, performed five sequential tasks resembling what they might encounter at a fire scene. Then, things got interesting.
“The firefighters who participated in the study wrote their times on the wall with chalk,” says Beckman. “Dr. Davis thought maybe this could become an avenue for firefighters to compete.”
It took a few years, but in 1991 the Challenge, which consists of three divisions (individual, relay and tandem) and features an identical course at each event, was officially born.
Hauling it all
No one disputes that the Challenge is a grueling physical endeavor. But the task of moving, loading and unloading the course equipment from city to city gives the three-rig fleet and its drivers a pretty good workout too.
Most truck drivers are familiar with the logistical dilemmas these haulers face once they roll off the highway and start navigating those smaller roads inside a bustling city.
“Sometimes we set up on a city’s main street,” says Beckman, who obtained his CDL after joining the Challenge staff in 2000. “It can be challenging for the road crew to get a 53-foot semi through downtown Buffalo or downtown Erie, Pa. And when we have a Challenge taking place indoors — let’s just say setting up a five-story tower inside a building is pretty remarkable.”
Then, there’s the issue of unloading the gear, some 16 crates weighing 1,000 pounds each.
“We unload, set the course, then tear down and load the trucks again,” says driver/course relocation specialist Bill Alexander, who has run the course but never actually competed. “We call it the toughest 16 hours in sports.”
The three tractor-trailer combos that comprise The Firefighter Combat Challenge Fleet are on the road six to eight months of the year. “We hear from other truckers on the CB radio, ‘What are you driving?’” says fleet manager Ron Beckman.
The Dorsey: A 48-foot Dorsey trailer (think NASCAR hauler) pulled by a Kenworth tractor with a big Cat engine and 13-speed transmission. Contents include a car-size Scott air compressor which charges the competitors’ air tanks and the crew’s minivan.
The 53’ Kentucky Trailer: Equipped with an overhead gantry system, this trailer is pulled by a 2000 series International 9200 I Eagle with a Detroit engine and 10-speed transmission.
The Tower: The five-story, 45-foot competition tower is also a custom-made, lowboy trailer pulled by another International 9200 I tractor. During unloading, it unfolds hydraulically like a fire ladder and rises up vertically. After the show, it retracts and folds down horizontally for transport.