Yukon firefighters put their fitness to the test

Some Yukon firefighters have taken up an extraordinary challenge. Called either Firefit or Firefighter Combat Challenge, it's a fitness competition designed to push firefighters to their limits.

Some Yukon firefighters have taken up an extraordinary challenge.

Called either Firefit or Firefighter Combat Challenge, it’s a fitness competition designed to push firefighters to their limits.

Deputy fire marshall James Paterson is encouraging Yukon firefighters to get involved.

He was on a competition team a decade ago with the Whitehorse Fire Department.

“We competed internationally for about four or five years,” he said. “We got pretty good with that department, we were very enthusiastic, and we were ranked 13th in the world with respect to fire department combat teams.”

It’s time now for the next generation to take the baton, he said.

“I saw the need for it again. I noticed that the Whitehorse Fire Department has been hiring fantastic volunteers these days that are really fit to begin with. So I took upon myself to take these guys and say, ‘Look, let’s just keep this momentum going.’”

Now, for the first time, the Yukon is training up two competition teams, one made up of Whitehorse firefighters and the other from the volunteer departments in the communities.

The competition itself is a series of tasks that directly relate to what firefighters might have to do on the job.

In full gear and with breathing apparatus on, you have to carry a 45-pound coil of hose up five flights of stairs, then haul up another 45 pounds hand-over-hand to the top of the tower.

Then it’s back down the stairs, to a machine that simulates smashing through a roof with an axe. After that you run about 150 feet, drag a hose fully charged with water back the other way and hit a target with a blast from the nozzle. Then you have to lift a 175-pound dummy under his armpits and drag him back 150 feet to the finish line.

Guys at the top of their game run the course in under two minutes.

The final task of dragging the dummy is “demoralizing and mentally tough to do that right at the end of all of these other events, because he is heavy,” said Patterson.

“He weighs about 175 pounds. But when you think about today’s general population, our clients or our customers, typically they’re weighing more and more these days, unfortunately. We need to be ready to move them if we need to.”

The whole event is a little nutty, he said.

“I’ll be honest with you. I question why I do it all the time. There’s so much stress, getting ready to do this event,” said Paterson.

“I just find there’s nothing as stressful as combat challenge. I think it has to do with putting on a mask on your face and having your air supply restricted – that really freaks me out. And then you have all of these people watching you, who are your peers, and then to go ahead and go through this fitness challenge, it’s quite intimidating.

“But to be able to do it, and do it effectively, and then go back to your home department and fight a fire, you just feel like you can handle anything. You feel like you are there, and you’re at the top of your game, and you’re ready for battle.”

While the competition is intense, any firefighter should see this as something they’re capable of, he said.

“Although a lot of people may look at this as an elite fitness test – it’s not. We don’t want our firefighters to be afraid of it. We want them to look at it like, ‘Wow that’s a really good thing, and it could protect our firefighters from injury or harm when we’re working on the fire ground.’”

Being fit doesn’t just make for better firefighters, it helps keep them and their coworkers safe, said Paterson.

Most on-the-job deaths of firefighters result from heart attacks, he said.

“Our guys aren’t typically, as you would imagine, getting blown up or burnt or crushed, or breaking ankles or whatever. That happens, but it doesn’t happen as much as our people are having heart attacks.”

It’s a lesson the Yukon fire service knows too well.

In 2011 Tagish fire chief Kurt Gantner died at age 49 from a heart attack while driving, the day after fighting a large house fire.

Heart attacks within 24 hours of active fire duty are automatically considered job-related.

The fire service leads the way on many aspects of personal safety equipment and training, said Paterson.

“But we don’t do a great job with respect to protecting our people with respect to cardiovascular emergencies,” he said.

“A lot of firefighters are carrying a lot of weight around their midsection. They’re very strong individuals, and they’ve got a lot of tenacity and a lot of grit, but when it comes down to the alarm going off at two o’clock in the morning and then going from absolute rest to full blast within four minutes, without any warm-up, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the heart and lungs.”

As for Paterson, now 44, he’s still training every day with the young guns. For him, a day off means going for a 10-kilometre run on his own.

The teams plan to compete this June in Calgary.

Paterson’s personal best in competition, at one minute 43 seconds, is a decade behind him.

Still, he thinks he’d probably beat it, if not for the fact that he’s scheduled to run his first marathon just three days before.

“I think if I was fresh, I could probably go sub-1:40,” he said.

“I want my wife to know that I’m coming home safely, and that I’m in the best possible condition to come home and see her at the end of the day, to see my kids at the end of the day and not have a heart attack because I wasn’t prepared or because I said, ‘Ah, you know what? I’ll pass on fitness today. I’ll pass on fitness tomorrow. I’m in good shape. I’m OK. I’m a firefighter.’”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at