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Firefighters go to national games

Christina Proctor

It’s about ego. It’s about being the best of the best.

But most importantly, it’s about doing a job.

Five local firefighters, from three different departments on the South Shore, combined this year to form the first team from Lake Tahoe to compete in the Firefighter Combat Challenge finals. The competition, developed by the Maryland company ARA/Human Factors, is based on the combat test – firefighting tasks commonly performed in emergency situations. In their first time out, with three rookie members, the local team came in sixth at the regional challenge at the state fair in Sacramento. The finish helped them qualify for the 1997 world finals in Las Vegas on Nov. 7-10.

Why do these men put themselves through training so brutal they often get physically sick? Capt. Steve Wetterer, 42, of the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District, seemed to have the simple answer.

“Face it, it’s about ego,” he said with a laugh, looking around the room at his teammates. “It’s challenging. It’s the ultimate cross-training experience.”

The competition involves a course with five specific tasks.

The firefighter wears full turnout gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus for a total of 50 to 55 pounds of dead weight. They carry a 42-pound hose up a five-story tower then hoist another 45-pound hose roll up to the top. From there it’s on to a simulation of forcible entry. Using a 9-pound mallet, they drive a 165-pound I-beam 5 feet. Then it’s just a short walk to pick up a hose charged with water and walk straightforward with it to hit a target. The last thing is a human rescue with a 175-pound dummy. The competitor runs backward dragging the “victim” 100 feet. All this is completed in under three minutes for the top competitors. The team time comes from the top three scores.

Due to conflicting schedules and multiple jobs, the team doesn’t often get to train together. Todd Moss, 27, a volunteer at Lake Valley Fire Department and a native of South Lake Tahoe, trains with Larry Trauner, 39, a firefighter at Lake Valley. Both Moss and Trauner competed in the combat challenge in the past – both as part of another team or individually.

Trauner either joins Moss at his station in South Placer or they run the “hill of death,” as they’ve named it, behind South Tahoe High School. Trauner also sometimes runs while pulling a tire behind him for extra weight. Most of this training is done in full turn-out gear.

Sean Ward, 30, and Rick Myers, 41, both firefighters with South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, train together. Their favorite choice of torture is sprinting up Ski Run Boulevard’s hill in full gear.

“You have to push yourself till it hurts,” Ward said. “The competition hurts, so you have to be ready for it.”

“This competition is harder than the actual job,” Myers explained. “In a real fire, you can’t expend everything you have in two minutes. You have to hold back.”

Wetterer said his wife and co-workers at the fire station have helped him get ready.

“I have people taking stopwatches to me when I run the stairs,” Wetterer said. “They keep on me.”

Even with the intensity of their training, the team members do not consider themselves remarkable in their physical fitness.

“All firefighters are into fitness in some way or another,” Ward said. “They just do it through other activities. We have firefighters who are competitive in triathlons, biking, and other sports.”

“Staying fit is also easier when you have a goal like the challenge,” Myers said.

Even with all the ego and competition involved, the core mission of the combat challenge is about performing the job safer and better.

“A lot of departments are using the combat challenge in some form for their entry level exams,” Myers said.

“This is good public relations for fire departments,” Wetterer said. “It dispels any myth that firefighters just sit around the station house.”

“Firefighters never go off duty,” Trauner said.

“You’re in a constant state of readiness,” Moss added.

The team is trying to raise $4,000 to cover expenses for the Las Vegas competition. Besides contributions from local businesses and service groups, the team is selling T-shirts for $15. Anyone interested in purchasing a shirt can contact Lake Valley Fire, South Lake Tahoe Fire or Tahoe-Douglas Fire.


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