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Bring on the heat: 509th firefighters win big

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Every year, active and retired firefighters from hundreds of municipal fire departments across the globe gather in their respective regions to test their skills and compete against other nationalities.

Known as the Firefighter Combat Challenge (FFCC), the annual competition has expanded to countries around the world to include New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, Chile and South Africa.

The contestants race against the clock while climbing a five-story tower, hoisting, chopping, dragging hoses and rescuing a “victim,” — all while wearing full bunker gear and the Scott 5.5 Air-Pak breathing apparatus.

Before the siren sounds, competitors’ personal protective equipment (PPE) is inspected to ensure it is serviceable and suitable for a realworld incident. If any piece of PPE is dropped during the course, the participant must retrieve it and replace it to the proper position. The challenge starts at the base of a 41-foot tower with a 42-pound hose pack over the firefighter’s shoulder. The firefighter must simulate entering the tower using a 160-pound steel beam driven horizontally with a mallet. The stop watch halts when the firefighter retrieves the 175-pound “victim” and drags him to safety — also known as the finish line.

This challenge puts each firefighter’s knowledge and fitness to the test and exhibits the occupation’s intense challenges.

This year, two of Whiteman’s finest competed in Elkhart, Indiana, taking the gold in two different categories. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Cory McGee, the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection flight assistant chief of safety, took first place in an individual event and Chris Finkes, a firefighter of the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron, and McGee placed first in the team Tandem Event. The Tandem Event times two competitors from the same department, county, fire district or agency’s ability to complete all five FFCC evolutions collectively on the course.

However, participating in the challenge isn’t for personal pride or gratification. Instead, it is a way to put a firefighter’s readiness to the test and see how well they can perform their job and hone their skills before it really counts.

“Around 2005 there was a big push in Air Force Fire Protection to build on physical fitness standards for firefighters,” said Finkes. “The FFCC was brought to our attention as a way to assess our levels of fitness and give us an opportunity to compete against other U.S. Air Force departments.”

Being a veteran of the FFCC, Finkes is ready to take on the next competition.

“Competition on a national scale is intimidating, competition on a World scale is hard to describe,” said Finkes. “There is no prize money or endorsement afterwards just an undeniable feeling of pride and success in your accomplishment.”

With McGee and Finkes both in their 40s, there are new records to chase and challenges to face in order to stay primed to save lives at any given moment.

“The training we do is rough on the body at this age,” said Finkes. “The turn-out gear [helmet, coat, pants, gloves and boots] and course requirements total up to 60 pounds. We've had to adapt our training to stay competitive while trying to achieve the overall goal, being physically fit to perform.”

No matter the differences between competitors, they all have one thing in common: this challenge hurts. The course pushes both the limits of physical stamina and mental preparedness.

“Whether a competitor is from the U.S. or Europe, we all know the pain that each of us has just endured on the course,” said Finkes. “Each of us also know we don't have to do it, but we have a need to prove to ourselves we can. A need to prove to our fellow firefighters that we can and we will not let them down during the ‘real deal.’”

Nationals are in Louisville, Kentucky, and those who qualify will compete in the world championship in Tyler, Texas, in October. Before then, the dynamic duo will strive to keep their gold-medal status at the next three regional events.