- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2001

Teams of firefighters in Montgomery County, Md., put their skills to the test yesterday, but no lives were on the line. Instead of battling a burning building or a collapsing roof, firefighters fought a stopwatch and competed against their own.
Eighteen five-member teams from around the county competed in the 2001 Total Team Challenge at the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service training academy in Gaithersburg.
"I designed the events based on reality, based on what we do every day," Capt. C. Jill Stutz said.
In the space of half an hour, each team cycled through four events. They began with a half-mile run, followed by a "Back to Basics" drill. Each team had to erect a 15-foot extension ladder to the second floor of a training building, stretch a 150-foot hose, climb the ladder with it and then run it up the stairwell to the third floor. They did it all in about four minutes.
In the next drill, the "Firefighter Challenge Relay," firefighters had to strap on 70-pound vests — replicating the weight of their fire packs. Each team member dragged a 175-pound dummy 50 feet, pulled a hose 150 feet before recoiling it by hand, and then pounded a sledgehammer against a tightly sprung hydraulic square, like a carnival strongman, imitating the action of breaking in a door.
The rain made the handle slippery, and a sledgehammer flew out of the hands of one new recruit.
The last drill sent the teams into a building they were told could collapse at any moment. A mannequin on the second floor represented a patient with a spinal injury. The firefighters had to pack the "patient" onto a wooden stretcher, keeping the neck steady, and carry it down to a waiting ambulance.
Assistant Fire Chief Tom Carr, who competed yesterday, said the course was designed to simulate the first eight to 10 minutes of a fire call. His team of administrators finished sixth in their category — last, but respectable. One member of the team was 55 years old.
Chief Carr said yesterdays event was meant to encourage camaraderie and fitness among firefighters. It was part of a four-part plan to "change the culture" of firefighting in Montgomery County.
He wants to address the medical, rehabilitative, fitness and mental health needs of firefighters, noting that eight out of 10 firefighters in Montgomery County retire on disability.
Several recent retirees who helped run yesterdays event lamented some of the changes that have transformed firefighting.
Ray Enright, a 28-year veteran of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, called firefighting "the greatest job in the world" but said todays recruits were too young and lacked the camaraderie that filled firehouses in a bygone era. There is little beer drinking after work these days, he said — no place known as the firemans bar, the way there used to be.
"Pride was all we had to keep us going," Mr. Enright said.
"Youve heard it and heard it and heard it, but youve got to live it (to know the pressures)," said former Chief Lenny Fitch.
Chief Fitch was impressed by the fundamentals of the five teams of recruits who competed yesterday, but some of the big, brash youngsters learned a few lessons the hard way. During the dummy-carry drill, one young firefighter built like a football player picked up the dummy under its shoulders and began backpedaling. He didnt get 15 feet before he fell.
The event was a way to spark the spirit Mr. Enright talked about — to let firefighters get to know their colleagues from other parts of the county. They were encouraged to bring spouses and children, who could turn a smaller version of a firehose on the facade of a child-sized house.
Cheree Nishiyama, 26, brought her 4-year-old and 7-month-old sons, Doug and Joey, to cheer on their father, recruit Robert Nishiyama, 28.
"I liked meeting the other people," Mrs. Nishiyama said. "Its nice putting a face to the names."
"All the things we do are very much the same as we do in real life," Chief Carr said. "Bringing the family members in helps the kids understand what mommy and daddy do for a living."
One noticeable change this year was the number of women who competed. Two years ago, only one woman was among the eight teams who attended. Last year, two women were part of the 12 teams. This year, seven of the 18 teams included at least one woman.
"Theyre my buddies. Weve worked together for 13 weeks so we decided to form a team," said Dana Evans, 22, of Rockville. The fire department recruit was one of 11 women to compete yesterday.
One of yesterdays teams consisted entirely of women recruits. It finished fifth among nine teams in its category.
The winning team was a group of professional firefighters called the Combat Challenge Team. The team competes nationwide. First prize won each member of the team a $150 savings bond, and their names were engraved on a touring trophy. The second-place team won $100 savings bonds; members of the third-place team won $50.

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