Heated competition

UP FRONT

Challenge: Firefighters push themselves to the limit as they simulate the demands of their job in a grueling contest.

July 22, 1999|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Beads of perspiration glisten on his forehead, but Rodney Vaughan remains oblivious to the scorching heat as he steps into 25 pounds of fireproof gear. His mind is focused only on the task ahead -- to finish a practice run of the Firefighter Combat Challenge in the fastest time possible.

The 27-year-old straps an air tank to his back, an additional 20 pounds, then slings 100 feet of folded hose, 44 more pounds, onto his shoulder and runs up five flights of stairs. Effortlessly. As if the heavy gear he's wearing is nothing more than a T-shirt, airy shorts and light jogging shoes.

Once atop the staircase, he uses a rope to hoist a 45-pound doughnut roll of fire hose up from the ground. After he swings it over the railing, he deposits the roll on the platform and proceeds down the stairs, where a 160-pound steel beam must be advanced 5 feet using a 9-pound shot mallet. He then maneuvers through an obstacle course, picks up a charged water hose weighing about 190 pounds, pulls it 75 feet, cracks the nozzle and hits a target with the water stream. Finally, he drags a 175-pound dummy victim a distance of 100 feet over the finish line.

All in an astonishing 1 minute, 47 seconds -- astonishing to the spectators who are watching in awe, but a disappointing time for Vaughan.

Breathless, he pulls off his helmet, wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove and mumbles, "Not good enough."

Vaughan, a professional firefighter with the Fairfax County Fire Department in Virginia, is training for Saturday's Firefighter Combat Challenge at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville. The event is one of 20 regional competitions held throughout the country where contestants -- professional and volunteer firefighters -- qualify for the world championship, set for November in Las Vegas.

Vaughan's best time for completing the course is 1:42.33, and he hopes to shave off a few more seconds in Saturday's competition to get a step closer to the world record of 1:29.35, held by Brad Roe of Montana.

Although Vaughan competes as part of a five-member team, his individual time is crucial because the top three individual times are added together to yield the team total. At 5:23.75 minutes, Vaughan's team currently ranks third in the nation and fifth internationally. The world record, 4:49.43, is held by Roe's team, of the Missoula Fire Department in Montana.

"Rodney and his teammates make it look so easy, but believe me, it's brutal," says Larry Collier, a basic training instructor at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy who competed in the challenge for the first time last spring in Ocean City. He'll celebrate his 51st birthday by taking on the Challenge for a second time Saturday. A long-distance runner who has finished the Boston Marathon twice, Collier says the Challenge is more intense than any marathon he's ever run. "It's an insult to your body, you see stars, and your legs feel like Jell-O."

But Collier adds that training for the Challenge is also a workout for a firefighter's job. "The course simulates the physical demands of real-life firefighting," he says.

Stacie Lawton of Fairfax, one of the few female contestants in Saturday's event, agrees. "It's all part of the job, but I must admit that I was ready to collapse after my first Challenge in the spring in Ocean City."

Women complete the same course, but their international qualifying time is set at 6 minutes and under. Lawton, who was a physical fitness instructor before joining the fire company earlier this year, is well on her way; her time is 4:07.13.

Lawton says the most difficult challenge is dragging the dummy. "You are well into the course, and then it's time to pull something that's a lot heavier than yourself. But then again, in my job, I'm expected to pull somebody."

The Firefighter Combat Challenge, which annually attracts about 5,000 firefighters, is the only nationally televised sports event (on ESPN) that has its roots in a federally funded research grant, explains its creator, Dr. Paul O. Davis. While on the faculty at the University of Maryland, College of Health and Human Performance, in the mid-1970s, Davis developed a physical ability test for fire departments to screen job applicants.

He turned the test into a sporting event in 1991. As president of OnTarget Challenge Inc., an entertainment and sports promotional management firm, he now organizes the Challenge events. But unlike sports that exist solely for entertainment, the Challenge is about performing a dangerous and demanding job better and more safely.

"The first Challenge in 1991 attracted five fire departments," remembers Davis.

Since the initial event, interest in the sport has spread like wildfire. Today, more than 600 fire departments sign up for the competition annually.

Competition is divided into five classes: open, female, over 40, over 50, and team time. And there's a Children's Fitness and Safety Challenge, a mini-version of the adult competition.

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