The Firefighter Combat Challenge is the brain child of Dr. Paul Davis who was looking for a way to fuse firefighters’ competitive nature with the need for a standard measurement of firefighter fitness for duty. A timed course of five firefighting tasks in full turnout gear and a Scott Air-Pak SCBA kicked off in 1991 and has grown by leaps and bounds ever since — being a mainstay at FDIC and broadcast on ESPN.
Today, Dr. Davis remains the Firefighter Combat Challenge’s president. He discusses not only how the challenge has changed over the years, but also how it has helped change the fire service.
What has been the most surprising change in the Challenge?
Dr. Davis: In its infancy, the Challenge was pretty much a gross force kind of event. No style points here. Big, heavy objects, just like the fireground. But, gradually the science of ergonomics and physics began to appear. And with it came the sharing of intelligence across the entire spectrum of athletes. From the top down, firefighters began to help each other without regard for geography or order of finish.
What trends are you seeing in the ages of the competitors?
Our older (40 and up) competitors. They can outperform guys 20 years their junior. We did a statistical analysis of the top times and averages across the entire span of competitors. We took the last 20,000 times. The lines are almost flat from 18 year olds until the 60s.
The crowd goes crazy when they see these outstanding male and female athletes running the times they do. It’s these “elder statesmen” of the fire service who are setting an amazing example of deferred obsolesce.
How have advances in PPE and SCBA affected competitors’ times?
The transformation of the PPE has been extraordinary. In 1966 I was a back-step firefighter. SCBA units weighed nearly 50 pounds and you had to suck the air out of the bottle.
No doubt, everything in the PPE has improved. But at the same time, fitness has to go up.
I’m pretty sure that the contributions in gear have helped immeasurably. But, specificity of training has continuously been validated in every sport, including ours.
How much has the Challenge grown?
From our first proof of concept in a partnership with the Greater Washington Council of Government in 1991, we’ve conducted 468 Challenges. Putting this on ESPN in our third year created a huge impact. Guys watched with amazement and thought, “Look, it can’t be that hard; I wear bunkers, and that guy’s doing an interview at the finish line.” Then reality set in.
What brings me a great sense of perspective is the numbers of older firefighters, guys in their 40s and 50s, who seek me out to thank me for creating a platform that resonates within their personal locus of control.
How has corporate sponsorship changed the Challenge?
The challenge in its current form would never exist were it not for the largess of Scott Safety, a company that cares deeply about the health and safety of North American firefighters.
How have the female competitors changed over the years?
Women continue to struggle with being treated as real contributors in their home departments. Some of this comes from departments that unwittingly lower standards to achieve diversity, failing to realize that you’re insulting women who can do the job. So, our women do feel that their participation validates their presence back home. Anyone who can crush this course should not have to show their bravery in any other way.
How has going global changed the Challenge?
We now have sanctioned or licensed events in more than 20 countries. Firefighters in a lot of countries are not revered as they are here. For example, in Europe, they have the prestige of the public works department. But, the ubiquity of endorsement, adoption and enthusiasm for foreign nationals is rewarding. And, when hundreds of firefighters get together for the World Challenge, in language spoken or gestures understood, there is a fraternity of the highest order.