Photo Gallery | Pittsfield firefighters train for challenge
PITTSFIELD — If thoroughbred horse racing is the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, the Firefighter Combat Challenge is probably the most grueling.
The five-man combat challenge team of the Pittsfield Fire Department proved that on a recent steamy Thursday afternoon at the department's Pecks Road training facility, The guys were getting ready for this weekend's Northeast Regional event in Haverhill and possibly the U.S. Nationals later this fall in Nevada.
Firefighter Combat Challenge is sport imitating life as competitors have five real firefighting tasks to complete — the elite ones doing so in 2 minutes or less.
"Everything here is technique," said rookie firefighter Kevin Brady. "If you're doing it wrong, you're going to be slow."
Lead by Deputy Fire Chief Dan Garner, the team's captain, each firefighter during a practice run was in full gear hauling a 45-pound coiled hose up a five-story tower, then using a rope pulled up another 45-pound hose to the top of the tower.
After sprinting down the tower stairs, each man took turns using a sledgehammer to move a three-foot, 165-pound steel beam, simulating chopping through the roof of a burning building to vent the fire.
Once the beam is hammered backward 5 feet, the firefighter zig-zags around orange safety cones, grabs a pressurized fire hose, sprints 75 feet and lets loose the water.
Lastly, the firefighter must drag a 185-pound mannequin, pretending to rescue the fake human.
"It's tough enough resetting this course, never mind running it," Garner said.
Garner is a veteran Pittsfield firefighter who has competed individually around the country for several years — his best time about 1:40 — as well as with the local team.
While the combat challenge course is competition driven, it doubles as a training exercise for new recruits, according team member Capt. Neil Myers, the city's firefighter training officer.
"When you have to rely on everyone on duty to fight a fire, you can't have a weak link," he said.
Garner pointed to how keeping firefighters physically fit can save their lives.
"Over the past 10 years the major cause of death of firefighters is heart/stress/overexertion — roughly 100 firefighters die per year across the country," he said.
The combat challenge began as a firefighter fitness/training exercise developed 40 years ago in Montgomery County in Maryland, evolving in into the unique sporting event first held 25 years ago. In May 1991, five fire departments from the Washington D.C. area competed in the first combat challenge that in 25 years has gone international, with the U.S. Nationals televised on ESPN for the past decade.
The Pittsfield Fire Department has had a team or individuals racing most of those 25 years, according to Garner.
After a six-year absence, the competition returns to Massachusetts Friday and Saturday, with the hometown team looking to defend several state records it holds for fastest time in the category of male under 40, male over 40 male, team, relay, and chief officer. In 2013, Garner finished 8th in the world championships in the over 40 category.
Rounding out the Pittsfield squad is Adam Kent and Jake Brown, both in great shape before joining the local fire department.
Kent was a Marine for five years and took up long-distance running prior to becoming a firefighter, but the FFCC is what keeps him mentally and physically fit for duty.
"Doing this makes the job a lot easier," said the former soccer/wrestling athlete at Taconic High School.
Brown likens the challenge to the crossfit training he does — quick and intense. He also enjoys the camaraderie of the team sport.
"It's fun to be out with a group, but this keeps you sharp, too," he said.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.