Waltzing with Randy

I'm already exhausted when it comes time to rescue Randy. I've been running up and down four flights of stairs in full firefighting gear - a jacket and helmet and a heavy oxygen tank strapped to my back.

I’m already exhausted when it comes time to rescue Randy.

I’ve been running up and down four flights of stairs in full firefighting gear – a jacket and helmet and a heavy oxygen tank strapped to my back.

I’ve carried, hoisted and dragged fire hoses along the way.

I’ve even had to perform a forced entry with a sledgehammer.

Then I find Randy lying on the ground, looking as if flames had consumed all of his clothing, but for a tattered green T-shirt.

Desperately trying to catch my breath, I lift Randy into a seated position, reach under his armpits and lift him up.

He’s a lot heavier than he looks.

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And I need to drag him about 30 metres towards safety.

I’m not a firefighter. But if I can get Randy past the finish line, I could be.

Rescue Randy is an 80-kilogram dummy. Saving this overweight mannequin is the fifth and final event in what’s known as the Firefighter Combat Challenge.

Many people know the challenge as an internationally touring and televised sports event. But it was originally designed by doctors as a method to select fledgling firefighters.

There were no television cameras last Sunday morning at Fire Station 2, only five recruits looking to fill out the roster of the Whitehorse Fire Department’s volunteer firefighters at this Sunday morning session.

There was also a volunteer firefighter from one of the local communities, who wanted to test his fitness.

And then there was this nervous reporter, hoping that he wouldn’t embarrass himself.

I signed up because I wanted to see if I had what it takes to make it as a volunteer firefighter. After all, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig.

Volunteers have fairly flexible hours, going on call whenever their time permits. They need to be on call at least 100 hours per month and attend weekly training.

But “volunteer” is a bit of a misnomer. These firefighters are paid for the time they put in attending calls and training.

And there’s even the chance for full employment. The department fills vacancies for full-time positions from its pool of volunteer members.

It’s not all rosy of course.

“In general, firefighting is made as safe as possible, although there is an element of risk,” the fire department warns in its information package.

Firefighters may have to work at heights or confined spaces. And they may also need to deal “with injured or deceased victims of all ages, including children and possibly people you may know.”

On Sunday morning I wasn’t concerned about any of that.

I was more worried about Randy and whether I’d be able to drag him far enough to complete the course.


I began to think that I should have done a little training to prepare, and maybe refused that second martini the night before.

When I asked the others, one guy said he’d ran some stairs, but couldn’t find any big friends to drag around. Another said he hadn’t done any training, but climbed stairs with heavy equipment every day at work.

I thought of the chair and desk where I park myself for eight hours a day.

Then another recruit momentarily alleviated my worries when he piped up that’s he’d prepared by smoking four cigarettes.

This didn’t turn out to be the best strategy.

Even though the guy was big, he collapsed under the weight of Randy. Twice. And didn’t make the cut in the end.

To take my mind off of Randy while I waited for my turn, I decided to climb the ladder truck,

The ladder, at a 65-degree angle, stretched 23 metres up into the frigid January air.

All the potential volunteers had to climb to the top to prove they weren’t afraid of heights.

From the ground it looked pretty daunting, but on the ladder it wasn’t so bad. Concentrating on one step at a time got me to the top. Once there, I was rewarded with a spectacular view the city’s pink and purple sunrise.

I was tempted to stay a little longer, but for the minus 30 degree weather, the disconcerting sway of the ladder and the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I looked down.

Back on solid ground, it was time to suit up for the challenge.

I asked the firefighters who were helping run the tryout how much time I had to complete it. I guess I was searching for that one thing all journalists need to get anything done: a deadline.

But they were coy.

I decided to just go as fast as possible. I figured I’m not in very good shape, but I might just be fast enough to outrun the fatigue.

Somebody said, “go” and I reached down, picked up a 20-kg section of coiled hose, slung it over my shoulder and started up the stairs, two at a time.

At the top of the four flights, I threw down the hose and ran out onto a balcony.

Another similarly heavy section of coiled hose was hanging 12 metres below, attached to the railing by a rope. Hand over hand, I hoisted the hose up and over the railing.

I raced down the stairs and onto a set-up called the Keiser Force Machine, which simulates having to break in through a roof with an axe.

I stepped onto the machine and knocked a 73-kg beam back with the sledgehammer. Who knew that chopping wood would one day come in handy?

I ran across the garage, zigzagged through some pylons and picked up a hose that was pressurized with water and dragged it back.

That’s when it came time to rescue Randy.

I picked him up and the rest kind of becomes a blur. I succumbed to what training officer Warren Zakus describes as “mushy brain.” This is what happens to your thinking during and after intense physical exertion.

Basically, your brain stops working.

I do remember words of encouragement, doubting whether I could make it, and then somebody counting down the remaining distance.

And then I was done. I’d made it. Randy and I were safe and sound on the other side.

And I’d done it in just under three minutes – the fastest time of the morning.

Nobody was more surprised than I was.

Zakus wasn’t surprised by any of the results.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time now and the one thing I’ve learned is that you cannot tell how people are going to do,” he said.

“There’s no indication, it doesn’t matter what they look like, their physical body type, how they dress, nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing that gives away who’s going to be able to do it and who isn’t going to be able to do it.”

I was able to do it, but I’ve been paying for it ever since.

For the next few days, my thighs protested and threatened to fail me whenever I walked down a flight of stairs. It felt as if I’d received a pair of charley horses.

My upper back started stiffening up, and my arms grew sore.

I’m sure it will be awhile before my body allows me to forget about the experience.

Despite the mushy brain, I passed the written test afterwards. And if the interview had gone well, I could have been in the running for the job.

During this month’s tryouts, 25 people turned up to waltz with Randy.

Now the recruiters are compiling the results of the physical test, the mental test and the interview, to rank candidates and pick the top 12 to 14 candidates.

If I didn’t have to leave the territory in February, when the month-long volunteer training takes place, I probably would have thrown my name in.

But as idyllic as the gig sounds, I still wonder whether I’d ever be able to do it. Whether I’d be up to the challenge when called, inevitably, to deal with an emergency.

I can run up and down stairs and drag an overweight manikin across a garage. But rescuing someone from a burning building, surrounded by smoke and flames, may be an entirely different matter.

Things are much safer at my desk.

Contact Chris Oke at