Rising to the challenge: Firefighters compete for annual competition

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
For the past eight years firefighters at the Air Force Academy have participated in the ultimate competition of their career: a seven-phase obstacle course where participants carry a 42-pound fire hose up six flights of stairs, hoist the hose to the top of a five story tower, use a nine- pound sledgehammer to move a 160-pound beam and rescue a 175-pound dummy victim as they race against competitors and the clock.

It's called the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, and although nerve racking and intense, the firefighters here stay dedicated to the competition to increase their fitness and practice for when they're called to truly save a life.

"It reminds you of why you're in this career to begin with," said Ken Helgerson, Academy deputy fire chief. "It puts participants on a clock and allows them to feel the stress just as you would when you show up to a structure fire where people are watching. You have to work through your adrenaline and some of your body's natural response mechanisms to focus in and do the task at hand. You go into the competition knowing it will be demanding and you have to find your physical limit and push through that to see what you're really capable of."

The challenge takes place April-November with 25 regional competitions throughout the country, as well as the national championship, scheduled Oct. 26-29 this year in San Diego, and the world championship, scheduled Nov. 12-17 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Academy has four teams in this year's competition, Team USAFA, Team USAFA Relay, Team USAFA Over-40 Tandem and Team USAFA Over-40 Relay. The Fire Fembots, the undefeated world champion female team for the past three years, has retired from the competition.

"I love the competitiveness, sportsmanship and camaraderie of the Firefighter Combat Challenge," said Patrick Kraft, an Academy firefighter who has participated in the challenge for 8 years, has been at the Academy for 11 and has fought fires for 20. "The course is an avenue for physical fitness and simulates all aspects of the career field."

Firefighters must wear a breathing apparatus, helmet, coat, pants, boots and gloves during the challenge. Firefighters can compete as individuals, in a tandem team of two or in a relay team of five. If an individual firefighter or a relay team finishes the course in less than two minutes, they advance to the nationals.

"For a world class athlete, they usually finish in about a minute and a half in the individual competition, "Helgerson said. "Our teams have been very successful. Last year our team was the national champions in the relay event, and we've been in the top three for every category almost every year."

There are seven stages of the competition: a stair climb, hose hoist, stair descent, forcible entry simulator, serpentine route sprint, hose advance, and dummy drag.

"I think the most pivotal point of the race is when you reach the Keiser Force Machine, used to simulate a firefighter breaking down a door or wall to enter a burning building," Kraft said. "It takes place in the middle of the competition when your adrenaline has kicked in and it requires a bit of everything--endurance, strength, sheer power and good technique."

Ernst Piercy, the Academy's fire chief, said firefighters become more physically fit and motivated to hone their firefighting skills after they participate in the challenge.

"Their fitness levels improve, they're able to practice their firefighting skills and their morale increases," Piercy said. "Cardiac arrest is still the number one killer of firefighters in our nation, and by providing an avenue for them to be more physically fit, it will benefit them in the long run."

The training also benefited the firefighters during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Piercy said Academy firefighters, working with mutual aid departments, held the fire to 140 acres, with no structures lost after it entered the installation on the Academy's southwest boundary.

"It was really a critical time and we had a lot of firefighters doing things that were high risk but was a huge pay off because of their training and skills," Helgerson said. "If the fire had jumped that road, it would have affected the stables and Pine Valley housing."

Every Thursday morning, Academy firefighters train three to four hours on a course identical to the main course they set up in the training area behind the Academy Fire Station 1.

"Every day, they go out on the course for a couple of hours and work on a small component, such as on the stairs or with the Keiser machine," Helgerson said. "When Thursday comes, the whole team does the entire course. Even without the protective gear and the air pack on, it's a wonderful workout. As soon as you add a bundle of hose it changes the whole dimension of the workout."

The Academy attended the regional competition in Hawarden, Iowa, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, and took first place in the relay event and second in team overall. The Academy's first-time competitors attended the Chicago competition Sept. 15-16 and placed third in team and second in relay.

"Our main goal with the competition is to make sure our firefighters remain physically fit to do their primary functions, which is structural firefighting," Helgerson said. "It keeps them working out in an environment that duplicates structure fires or more complex physical tasks, whereas if you were to just run a 5k, it doesn't equate to the high intensity work that's needed on a fire ground."

There are 65 firefighters assigned at the Academy who respond to 700-800 emergencies each year.

"I think people underestimate the full scope of the duties that firefighters are expected to perform and the training it takes to stay qualified in all of the services we provide," Helgerson said. "The firefighters at the Academy are all fully qualified in structural, aircraft, hazardous materials, emergency medical service, wildland, confined space, water and ice rescue, vehicle extrication, high angle rescue, structural collapse and trench rescue."

The public is welcome to attend the Firefighter Combat Challenge competitions. The next regional event the Academy will attend will be in Las Vegas Oct. 5-6.

Academy firefighters a part of the competition this year are: Pat Kraft, Bill Gates, Hans Barkley, Anthony McMurtry, Steven Rousseau, Roy Dalton, Ken Helgerson, Ron Prettyman, Dan McAuliffe, John Dannen, Tommy Disario, and Airmen 1st Class Tylor King, Xavier Leal, Donnie Brown and Tieghan Fitzpatrick.