Departments set for combat

By Ed Brock

This weekend the people of Clayton and Henry counties will have a chance to see what it takes to be a firefighter.

For one thing, it takes strength. The U.S. National Championship of the Firefighter Combat Challenge, scheduled to be held Saturday and Sunday in front of the Home Depot in Morrow, will be a display of that strength.

”I'm talking about one of the most exciting sporting events you can ever attend,“ said Clayton County Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry Russell.

Russell is one of the members of Clayton County's team that will compete for the national title.

This is what they'll have to do to win that title.

The Firefighter Combat Challenge is essentially an obstacle course that is composed of feats that firefighters generally must perform on the job.

It begins with a climb up a five-story tower in full gear carrying a 50-pound hose pack.

”When they climb the stairs they're carrying 90 pounds of gear and hose,“ Russell said.

Once at the top they must pull another 50-pound house pack on a rope to the top of the tower.

Back on the ground, they have to grab a nine-pound sledge hammer and use it to move a 165-pound steel beam five feet on a rail. After that the fighting firefighters take up an active hose line, advance it 100 feet and then hit a target with a stream of water.

”Then you pick up a 185-pound mannequin – if you're still conscious,“ Russell said.

The competitors drag the mannequin another 100 feet and the course is over.

It's a course that's used nationwide by departments to test the physical readiness of firefighter candidates. Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas implemented this particular test and a physical fitness campaign when he took over the department in 2001.

”This is a natural evolution for us,“ Cohilas said. ”It represents the upper echelon of our overall fitness program.“

The challenge was designed by medical expert Paul Davis at the University of Maryland as a physical agility test for firefighter candidates, Cohilas said.

”It represents clearly the physical stresses and strains placed upon our firefighters' bodies while they perform their duties at a fire,“ Cohilas said.

Climbing flights of stairs carrying hose packs is often necessary at structure fires, for example. Moving the steel beam with a sledge hammer simulates the use of tools for forcible entry. And of course dragging the mannequin represents the ultimate mission of a firefighter, rescuing an incapacitated civilian or a fellow firefighter from a blaze.

Cohilas said his department has at least two teams that are expected to do very well in the competition, the two-person tandem team and the over-40 team. And he is especially looking forward to having a team of female firefighters in the competition.

”I have hired a lot of female firefighters. A lot of people were skeptical,“ Cohilas said. ”I am very, very proud of our female firefighters.“

Russell and his teammates have an exact duplicate of the Challenge course on ”The Hill,“ the CCFD's training ground behind its headquarters on Ga. Highway 85 in Riverdale. There they have been training and developing skills that allowed them to win the Southeastern U.S. regional championship in Gainesville in August.

While participating in the regional championship in Gainesville Russell learned that the original plans to hold the national championship in north Atlanta had fallen through. The event planners were thinking about having it at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

”I said we'll host it and we'll have good, enthusiastic crowds,“ Russell said.

Being successful in the challenge isn't just a matter of strength. Russell and the others have been studying videos of past competitions to learn how best to run the course.

”There are a lot of little tricks,“ Russell said.

But the competition will be fierce. World Record Holder Bob Russell of Overland Park, Kansas will be there this weekend.

”It literally will blow your mind how fast these guys will go,“ Russell said.

Winners in the nationals can qualify for the World Challenge that is usually broadcast on ESPN, said Allison Donohue, event coordinator for OnTarget Challenge, Inc.

It's the first time the national championship will be held in Georgia and also the first time for the ”tandem event.“ For the team events the course is split between three to five people, but competitors without enough people to do that will now be allowed to split the course between two people, Donohue said.

Those two people do not have to be from the same department, and they may be firefighters who met in previous competitions.

”One thing about the challenge is people become friends and they stay in touch,“ Donohue said. ”We call it the brotherhood.“

Along with the challenge itself, events will be available for the children including a miniaturized version of the challenge, a display of fire fighting equipment and vehicles and more. While the event is free the department is collecting money from sponsorships and donations as well as T-shirt and food vendor sales that will go to the Rainbow House Children's Shelter in Clayton County and the American Red Cross to assist the victims of the recent hurricanes.

”With all of the proceeds going to charity, it's good for the community,“ said Fire Lt. Rich Elliott, another member of the Clayton County team.

The challenge for teams begins at 1 p.m. Saturday and individual competitions will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday. The Home Depot is at 1986 Mt. Zion Road. Call (404) 557-5158 for information on sponsorships and donations.