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Firefighters prepare to defend combat challenge title

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Alex Cohilas put on his firefighter's helmet.

The helmet was black, with red and yellow flames drawn on the side, and the Clayton County fire chief settled it on his head and adjusted the strap under his chin.

Behind him, on Thursday morning, the radio played Queen's "We Will Rock You" through two speakers.

Cohilas put on a pair of brown gloves, wiggling his fingers to pull the gloves snug.

The radio switched to AC/DC's song, "You Shook Me All Night Long," and Cohilas grabbed a sledge hammer, swung it, and hit a heavy steel beam with a ringing blow.

He swung again, and again, driving the beam backwards with every hammer blow.

Nearby, two firefighters, Billy Rice and David Odum, discussed the quickest way to pick up a bundle of flat, gray hose.

"Somebody have the stopwatch?" Cohilas said. "Where's the stopwatch?"

The Clayton County Fire Department is practicing for the Firefighter Combat Challenge, again. The two-day national challenge will be held in Morrow on October 12 and 13, for the third year in a row.

Last year's challenge brought 500 firefighters to the county to compete on the course of seven feats designed to replicate the challenges faced in fighting a fire. The event brought about 10,000 spectators to the Home Depot parking lot at 1986 Mt. Zion Road, and ESPN taped the competition for later broadcast.

Last year's challenge saw the Clayton team take advantage of the home court, and the over-40 relay team beat the world champions, and set the world record, running the challenge course in one minute and 20 seconds.

The relay team, made up of David Odum, Jerry Russell, Jeff Hood, Ernest Donaldson and Jay Fordham, went on to the world challenge in Las Vegas, and won.

This year, with Cohilas replacing Russell, the over-40 team will be racing to hold the title.

"There's no doubt we've got a big target on us," said Hood, a deputy chief with the department. "We've already been told that. They know we're the team to beat."

The team relayed through the challenge course behind the headquarters fire station very quickly in its Thursday morning practice. Wearing full gear, including a yellow air-pack strapped on each back and the especially colorful helmets strapped on each head, the time wasn't as fast as the world record and wasn't as fast as the team would like.

"We want to make all the mistakes in practice," Hood said.

"That's why we call it practice," Cohilas said.

The chief practiced hitting the beam again, practiced jumping onto the stand and grabbing the hammer's handle. He jumped and grabbed, walked around to the starting place, and jumped and grabbed again.

On the 44 1/2-foot tower, standing on one end of the training ground, hung a white sign: "Home of the 2006 Firefighter Combat Challenge World Champions."

What to know:

What: The Firefighter Combat Challenge, called "The toughest two minutes in sports," by ESPN.

When: October 12 and 13

Where: 1986 Mt. Zion Road, Morrow. The Home Depot parking lot.

Cost: Free admission. All proceeds from concession sales go to local, state and national charities. Last year, the fire department donated about $47,000.

Kids: There will be a scaled down firefighter challenge course, called the "Crawl, Drag and Squirt Course," for kids to dress like firefighters and run through the miniature challenge, with the assistance of firefighters. There will also be a "Nothing But Kids Zone," sponsored by Party City. Both are free of charge.

More information: www.claytonchallenge.com