San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

October 10th, 2008
The Myth of Jones: The firefighter’s challenge

Alex Barrera of the Austin Community College fire academy drags his rescue dummy across the finish line at last weekends Firefest in Buda.

Alex Barrera of the Austin Community College fire academy drags his rescue dummy across the finish line at last weekend's Firefest in Buda.

The Myth of Jones: A Column

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

BUDA – Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the heroes of sports all laid down their egos to honor the police officers and firefighters who rushed to New York City’s World Trade Center, in many cases fatally.

For a couple weeks, anyway, the country recognized true heroism, briefly ignoring the phony entertainment heroism of easier times. Heroism recovered something like its true meaning.

Last weekend’s Fire Fest at Buda City Park put Texas firefighters on display in a less catastrophic environment, which managed to demonstrate another aspect in which firefighters trump the heroes of sports: Athleticism.

If your pleasure in viewing sports events has ever consisted in marveling at the athletes as human performance machinery – and who can say it never has? – then the Fire Fest competitions exposed you to a whole different side of public service. Idolize Michael Jordan if you must, but don’t pretend he every applied his physical gifts to anything truly important.

The firefighter’s challenge that took place at Buda City Park on Oct. 4 might have been the most strenuous competition that a fellow who has spent 30 years as a sportswriter has ever seen. Athletes run, athletes lift and athletes swing clubs, but seldom in the same course.

The firefighter begins by putting on his full gear under the blazing sun on a 100-degree Saturday afternoon. Next, he climbs four flights of stairs. Then, he hoists up a 150-pound hose from the ground to his fourth-floor platform. Next, he runs down the four stories of stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs, he picks up a charged fire hose, hoists it over his shoulder and drags it 70 feet. At the end of that path, he drops the hose and picks up a sledgehammer. He carries the sledgehammer to a platform and uses it to drive a plank out of its slats to simulate a forced entry.

That accomplished, he finds a 175-pound rescue dummy on the ground. He sidles up behind the dummy, reaches under its arms, lifts it and drags it backward 70 feet to simulate a rescue carry. Mission accomplished.

“What goes into this is more than we actually do, usually,” said Manny Bruner, a Round Rock firefighter.

That is, sometimes a firefighter has to go up and down four flights of stairs, but not always. Sometimes, the firefighter has to hoist up the heavy hose or drag the charged hose, but not always. Sometimes, the firefighter has to force entry, but not always. Sometimes, the firefighter has to carry a body, but not always. Sometimes, though, he might have to do it all.

It’s all combined in the firefighter’s competition. Not so remarkably, many younger firefighers, especially cadets, drop to the ground, exhausted, just when they’re trying to lift the rescue dummy. And, quite remarkably, the better competitors can finish off the whole battery of tasks in barely more than a minute.

“That’s a big difference,” Bruner said. “Here, you’re only doing it for a minute. In a real fire, we could be in there for a couple hours.

Seconds count in a fire rescue, obviously. Seeing the firefighters work through this exercise, one is struck by how great are the differences between them. As with any profession, some firefighters are better than others.

For example, Robert Rygg of the Lake Travis Fire Department, last year’s winner, won again this year with a time of one minute, nine seconds. A team of four El Paso firefighters finished first in the team competition with a combined time of 4:59.8. The Kyle Fire Department team finished in 7:30.38, while the Buda Fire Department team finished in 7:57.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tried anything like this,” said Jeremy Hennan, a big, young Kyle firefighter catching his breath after trying the course.

It was only a competition, of course. Maybe a firefighter who struggles with the course will respond better to the urgency of a real fire, and maybe a firefighter who masters the course won’t do as well in a real fire.

But however one slices it, one gains a new appreciation for firefighters after viewing this demonstration of their many possible tasks when the alarm goes off. One sees what goes into those seconds that truly count. One sees the athleticism of real heroes.

Megan Charron running the Kids Firefighter Challenge at Fire Fest on Oct. 3. Photo by Gary Lang Shaw.

Megan Charron running the Kids Firefighter Challenge at Fire Fest on Oct. 3. Photo by Gary Lang Shaw.

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