Fighting Fire With Fire

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

If that first grade fantasy of being a firefighter when you grew up is still lurking somewhere deep in your subconscious, it’s time to let it out by visiting this month’s Firefighter Combat Challenge at the Asheville Mall.

While over 200 firefighters will be converging on the Mall that weekend to compete, you can join in and indulge your inner firefighter in the weekend’s Corporate Cup competition, in which anyone over 18 can don firefighting gear and experience the real-life rigors of fighting fires and saving lives. But the main action comes when the individual and team competitions, open to working firefighters only, begin with a series of lightning fast tasks that most contestants complete in 90 seconds or less.

“Up to half of the firefighters come from within 150 miles of Asheville,” explains Shane Lunsford of the Asheville Challenge Foundation, the local organizer of the event. “But we’ve had inquiries from as far away as Texas and Minnesota. There’s a lot of buzz on the Firefighter Challenge bulletin boards.” Asheville is the fourth stop on the Challenge tour this year, Shane said, the tour having begun in Washington, D.C., in early April. It will continue on across the country before arriving in Atlanta in October for the national championships. “We’re one of 25 cities in all, and we think it will become an annual Asheville event,” Shane predicts.

It’ll be hard to miss, even if you’re not there, thanks to the 50-foot metal tower that’s the centerpiece and staging ground for the competitive tasks (and that will sprout from the front parking lot of the Mall). “You’ll be able to see it from I-26 and I-40,” Shane says.

It’s being trucked in by On Target Communications, a Maryland event and television production company that developed the Challenge and that markets it to local communities as a fundraising tool. On Target’s specialty is extracting the physical elements of difficult first-responder endeavors like being a firefighter, say, or a SWAT team member or a Marine, and turning them into endurance tests. The Firefighter Combat Challenge joins the National SWAT Challenge and the Marine Corps Super Squad Challenge on the list of On Target’s productions. Besides the tower, On Target trucks in fire hydrants, pressurizers, water tanks, hoses and even a firefighter store selling firefighter-related merchandise.

Spectators at the Asheville Mall challenge will get a close look at what makes firefighting one of the most dangerous and physically brutal of job choices, as competitors don full turnout gear that weighs more than 80 pounds to carry out a series of tasks, either individually or in teams, that require the same physical stamina required to save lives and control fires.

For starters, there are the 45-pound hose packs competitors will have to carry up ten flights of steep metal stairs to the top of the tower. Between the weight of the turnout gear and the hose pack, they’ll be lugging 125 pounds, with the hose pack to be deposited precisely in a marked square on the top floor. There’s a “forcible entry event,” in which a 160-pound beam has to be carried five feet using a shot mallet that weighs eight pounds. The final task, the “victim rescue,” involves dragging a mannequin weighing 175 pounds a hundred feet over the finish line.

“There’s a reason they call it the toughest two minutes in sports,” Shane says. The three Asheville-area firefighters left standing at the end of the event will advance to national competitions in October and, if successful, will qualify for the world event the next month in Las Vegas.

But there’s fun to be had, too, especially for kids who take part in the Kid’s Firefighter Challenge, a scaled-down version of the grownup one. Instead of a five-story metal tower, children will be presented with a “fire safety house” and a 12-foot inflatable rubber tower. But the youngsters get the same gear the big guys do, a child-sized regulation helmet and turnout gear; and, like the big guys, they get to carry a hose, even if it’s a special lightweight version, up to the top of the tower. Unlike the grownups, though, the youngsters get to slide back down to the bottom of the tower to practice the “stop, drop and roll” escape maneuver.

If the metal and rubber towers, the amateur Corporate Challenge, the hoses and hydrants aren’t enough for you, you can also take part in a “Firefighter Fitness Workshop” being offered on May 22 at the Asheville Four Points by Mike Stefano, a retired captain with the New York City Fire Department and the author of The Firefighter’s Workout Book, which has sold 70,000 copies and is in its eighth printing. “The Challenge brings the concept of the fit firefighter to the forefront, for all to see,” Captain Mike says. “Getting the boys out of the back room and into the weight room is the clear message.”

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