By Ed Brock
Sitting in the bleachers with the other fans, the man who created the On Target Firefighter Challenge watched the two fastest competitors pound through the obstacle course he designed specifically to test their mettle.
On the course Sunday for the Challenge's National Championships being held in Morrow were world champion Bob Russell of the Overland Park, Kansas Fire Department and his challenger, Eric Acres with the Department of Defense Fire Academy. For the first half of the course, carrying a 50-pound house pack up a five-story tower while in full gear and then pulling another hose pack up the tower on a rope, the two men were neck and neck.
But Acres began falling behind on the ”forced entry“ event in which the firefighters must pound a 165-pound metal beam on a track with an 8-pound sledge hammer to move the beam five feet. In the end Russell finished the course at one minute 24 seconds while Acres finished right behind him at one minute 31 seconds.
”I think Eric's eight months in Iraq took some edge off him,“ said Paul Davis, the University of Maryland medical expert who designed the course and who is president of the On Target Firefighter Challenge organization. ”Hanging with Bob Russell will steal your soul.“
With stunningly clear weather as an aid the debut of the national championships in Clayton County went very well, said Davis and the man who helped bring the event here, Clayton County Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry Russell.
”The enthusiasm is just electric,“ Russell said.
The largest crowds were on Saturday when the tandem and relay teams ran the course. Sunday was the individuals' competition, but both days had crowds in the hundreds. Davis' course is used to test the physical ability of firefighter candidates around the nation. It is designed to simulate the challenges faced on the scene of a real fire.
Along with the tower events and the forced entry event the firefighters had to run through a serpentine course, pull a fire hose 100 feet to hit a target with a stream of water and then drag a 185-pound mannequin another 100 feet.
At least one competitor collapsed in the mannequin drag, but Russell said that competitor was quickly revived.
”You're talking about world class athletes,“ Russell said.
Clayton County's teams did well. The department's female team took second place and the tandem team, Firefighter Antonio Johnson and Lt. Billy Rice, finished in third place. Also, Johnson and Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Scarborough set personal best records.
And all of the teams qualified for the World Challenge XIV scheduled for Nov. 5 in Deerfield Beach, Fla. The World Challenge is usually broadcast on ESPN.
While the Henry County Fire Department did not compete in the challenge this year, Firefighter/Paramedic Mike Berry watched the competition with his wife Kristy and their two sons, 14-month-old Andrew and 8-year-old Josten.
”We're going to have a team up here next year, definitely,“ Berry said.
And next year the competition may well be in the same spot. Davis said the people, the weather and the proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport all make Clayton County an appealing location to hold the challenge.
”I'm very optimistic that this is going to be home for the next three years,“ Davis said.
”We like this place.“