Heated Contest : 100 Firefighters Test Their Skills, Compete in 5-Exercise Drill


Just a few more inches. That was all it would take if firefighter Rob Asay could just drag the legs of this dummy--175 pounds worth of dead, vexing weight--across the finish line behind him.

Gasping for air from his oxygen mask, the 26-year-old Asay heard, “C’mon, Rob! C’mon!” from his firefighter buddies.

The dummy’s torso had crossed the line, but as Asay groped for a leg or a foot--anything to grab--he fell down heavily. Finally, with a desperate heave, he pushed the dummy’s legs across the line.


“I just didn’t have anything left,” said Asay, who had joined more than 100 firefighters from around Southern California on Sunday for the third annual Firefighter Combat Challenge.

A cross between television’s “Rescue 911” and “American Gladiators,” the exhibition saw competitors run through five exercises designed to test firefighters in skills that they would need to battle a high-rise blaze with people trapped inside.

First, competitors had to race to the top of a five-story tower with a 50-pound pack slung over their shoulders. At the top, they used a pulley to hoist a hose, which they heaved onto a platform. They then raced back down to the ground, where they had to drive a 165-pound beam five feet with a shot hammer, simulating the smashing of a door or ceiling with an ax.

At their next stop, the firefighters dragged a hose 75 feet, cracked the nozzle and shot water at a black box. Then they grabbed the dummy under the arms and dragged it 100 feet to the finish line--where most promptly collapsed on a blue mat and struggled to strip off more than 30 pounds worth of fire gear on their backs.

“The first time, I did it just to see if I could do it,” said Larry Vandenberg, an Anaheim firefighter who ran the course in under four minutes Sunday and, at age 52, was the oldest competitor. “Now it’s fun just to prove you still can.”

The for-profit event at the Fire Training Center was organized by a Washington-area company called ARA/Human Factors, which develops training programs for law enforcement groups around the country.


Among the 18 agencies represented Sunday, the California Department of Forestry took top team honors and won the right to represent the local region at the national competition in St. Louis in August. Each of its top three firefighters finished the course in under three minutes. Typically, Davis said, departments seek firefighters who can run the course in seven minutes.

One competitor, a paramedic, suffered acute heat exhaustion and had to be given fluids intravenously after his heart rate began to rise and his blood pressure dropped nearly an hour after he finished.

But for the most part, said Robert Olvera, an Orange County physician who assisted at the event, the signs of severe exhaustion and disorientation by the participants were normal for people who had just finished a few minutes of such intense physical exertion.

“Basically, they don’t have any blood in their brains--it’s all in their muscles right now,” he said. “This simulates a worst-case scenario for this type of physical demand, and it will normally take them about 15 to 20 minutes to recover.”

Even some of the best athletes in the lot appeared overwhelmed.

Eric Jones, a lanky, 160-pound track and field competitor who is a reserve firefighter at the La Verne Fire Department, was well ahead of the day’s record pace for virtually his entire run, as he dragged the rescue dummy just a few dozen yards from the finish line.

Then his legs gave out, and the 20-year-old toppled, stuck momentarily under the dummy. After a few false starts, he managed to right himself and drag the dummy across the finish line with one of the top times of the day. Even after finishing, Jones had a tough time even opening his eyes, and his fellow firefighters had to drag him to the first-aid tent for oxygen.


“Ten feet away,” he mumbled to himself after he had recovered a few minutes later. “At that point (when he fell), I just started feeling the pain. I kept thinking, ‘This is a victim, keep him on his right side.’ . . . I’ll get it right next time.”

The fastest heat of the day was turned in by James Drummond, 34, of the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center fire department, who ran the course at two minutes and 28 seconds--just 22 seconds short of the competition’s all-time national record.

As Drummond finished, his colleagues marveled that he didn’t appear to have broken a sweat.

“Put a little effort into it, would ya?” one yelled at him.

The main challenge in the event was “mental,” Drummond said. “My buddies were high-fiving me (as he ran in the middle of the course), and that kind of pumped me up.”

About the only thing missing from the event besides actual flames were more than a few female competitors.

Paula Perry, a 29-year-old Los Angeles City firefighter who finished the course in about four minutes, said the event drove home the point that firefighting is still largely dominated by men.


“That’ll take a long time to change,” she said. “But it’s nice to see that at least there are a few women who feel comfortable enough with the shape they’re in to turn out.”