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Academy firefighters return to world competition stage

Firefighter Stacy Billapando from the Colorado Springs, Colo., Fire Department hoists a rope attached to a 45-pound fire hose from five stories up during a firefighter challenge at the Air Force Academy June 27, 2009. Ms. Billapando, the world's top-ranked female firefighter, will join the Academy ladies' tandem firefighter team at World Firefighter Combat Challenge XVIII, scheduled to be held in Las Vegas Nov. 16-20. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Firefighter Stacy Billapando from the Colorado Springs, Colo., Fire Department hoists a rope attached to a 45-pound fire hose from five stories up during a firefighter challenge at the Air Force Academy June 27, 2009. Ms. Billapando, the world's top-ranked female firefighter, will join the Academy ladies' tandem firefighter team at World Firefighter Combat Challenge XVIII, scheduled to be held in Las Vegas Nov. 16-20. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Airman 1st Class Jessica Morehouse drags a rescue dummy backwards across the finish line during a firefighter combat challenge June 27, 2009. In her first-ever challenge, Airman Morehouse a member of the ladies' tandem team and the ladies' relay team at the Academy, both of which are ranked number one in the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Airman 1st Class Jessica Morehouse drags a rescue dummy backwards across the finish line during a firefighter combat challenge June 27, 2009. In her first-ever challenge, Airman Morehouse a member of the ladies' tandem team and the ladies' relay team at the Academy, both of which are ranked number one in the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. Air Force Academy firefighter Ron Prettyman hauls a loaded fire hose over his shoulder as he sprints forward to finish in the over-40 male relay at a firefighter combat challenge held at the Academy June 27, 2009. Mr. Prettyman is one of five firefighters who will compete at the World Firefighter Challenge XVIII, scheduled to be held in Las Vegas Nov. 16-20. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. Air Force Academy firefighter Ron Prettyman hauls a loaded fire hose over his shoulder as he sprints forward to finish in the over-40 male relay at a firefighter combat challenge held at the Academy June 27, 2009. Mr. Prettyman is one of five firefighters who will compete at the World Firefighter Challenge XVIII, scheduled to be held in Las Vegas Nov. 16-20. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Academy Fire Department helped set and then broke its own world record, and earned four national championships and two second-place trophies at the Firefighter Combat Challenge Nationals Oct. 30 through Saturday, in Arlington, Texas. 

The Firefighter Combat Challenge simulates the physical demands of real-life firefighting by running firefighters through a series of five back-to-back-breaking tasks. Firefighters running the course must master the technique of each physical event while running against the clock, and fractions of a second can be the difference between advancing to the next level of competition or joining a consolation round. 

Firefighters can tackle the entire course as an individual, team or tandem, and the Academy is represented in virtually every category, except the over-50 age divisions. The world record-holders and breakers are a duo which consists of a firefighter challenge veteran and a rookie. They combined last week to set a new world record for the women's tandem. 

Stacy Billapando from the Colorado Springs Fire Department combined with Airman 1st Class Jessica Morehouse of the Academy Fire Department to create the team of "Old Dog, New Trick" and set the bar higher for their fellow female firefighters with a new world record time of 2:00.78 at last week's nationals. They finished 40 seconds ahead of their closest competitors and broke the existing ladies' tandem record by five seconds -- which they had set the previous week. 

Billapando has trained with the Academy's firefighter challenge teams here for several years and is currently the top-ranked female in the firefighter combat challenge. 

"Stacy pretty much knows all the tricks of the trade and is a very good coach," Airman Morehouse said. 

One example of Billapando's coaching came in techniques for the final event of the challenge, where firefighters must drag a 175-pound mannequin backwards 75 feet after grasping it from behind and under the arms. 

"She taught me a lot about the footing -- you go much faster if you keep your feet inside the rescue dummy's feet. You can keep a fast pace and keep your feet moving and not get tangled up," Airman Morehouse said. 

The firefighters' trek to the world games started June 26 at Falcon Stadium. Normally, Academy firefighters have to travel several hours' driving time to compete in regional competitions. But this year, the 10th Air Base Wing sponsored a regional competition at Falcon Stadium, which drew firefighters from several states for two days of competition and was the largest regional competition of the year. 

The number of Academy firefighters who choose to compete this year is unprecedented, with nearly half participating. 

"This level of involvement is an indication of the number of dedicated professionals we have who serve our Academy community each and every day," said Col. Rick LoCastro, 10th Air Base Wing commander. 

The regional competition here was also the debut of the Academy Fire Department's ladies' relay team. 

"The event came here, and we did the relay team for fun, and we ended up being pretty good at it," Airman Morehouse said. "We're all good friends on the team, and not only do you have fun training for the competition, but you also get better at your job." 

Fourteen Academy firefighters qualified to advance to the nationals in Arlington, including the ladies' relay team. Despite having the free ticket to the nationals, several of the firefighters chose to compete in other regional competitions to further their preparation for the national and soon world stage. The Academy's under-40 relay team set a personal best of 1:10 in St. Louis in September and is now ranked number one in the world going into the world competition later this month. 

At the Oct. 24-25 regionals in Omaha, Neb., the ladies' relay team clocked the fastest time of the year in their division, of 2:00.01 and are also ranked number one in the world in their division. 

At last week's national competition, the following Academy firefighter teams finished in first place: male relay, ladies relay, ladies tandem and co-ed tandem. The co-ed tandem team is another combined team, featuring Billapando and a recent Academy re-addition, Anthony "Tank" McMurtry. Tank was an enlisted firefighter at the Academy earlier this decade and a mainstay of the Academy's first firefighter combat challenge teams. Coming back to the Academy as a civilian, he's rejoined the Academy Fire Department and is again helping to power two of the Academy's world-class firefighter combat challenge teams. The team of Tank and Billapando outperformed their closest competitors by 7.45 seconds on the national stage. 

Also at that national competition, the Academy's over-40 male relay team and over-40 male tandem duo each took second place. 

The Firefighter Combat Challenge was developed to conquer two problems affecting the firefighting profession: improving the physical fitness levels and refining basic firefighting skills, said Chief Ernst Piercy, chief of Fire and Emergency Services for the Academy. 

"The Academy firefighters who compete in these challenge competitions have reached the pinnacle of both, and have certainly motivated others as well," added the chief. "They have not only proven that they perform well under pressure, but they have also demonstrated the physical capability and the technical skills needed to provide the best possible service to those who need their help. These professionals are part of the network of support agencies that ensure the Academy's mission gets executed every minute of every day." 

And it's that support which is making this level of training possible. The Academy Fire Department started competing in the Firefighter Combat Challenge at the start of the current decade. Funding from the 10th ABW has allowed the department to add a Firefighter Combat Challenge tower and course to their fire training area to ramp up mission training. It has also helped cover the costs of sending Academy firefighters to the competition, and turned the Academy Fire Department into a national power at the Firefighter Combat Challenge. 

Now, Colonel LoCastro added he's counting the days until the World Championships in Las Vegas in two weeks. 

"No question our Air Force Academy firefighters will bring it strong once again and return with a truck full of award-winning world championship hardware," he said.