FORT LEWIS, Wash. - From a standing start, local firefighters have raced to prominence in 2008.

A Local F-283 Fort Lewis extrication team, adept at pulling accident victims out of wreckage, has captured national attention for rapid-fire success in competitions by using techniques that translate directly to their ability to save lives.

Fort Lewis owns responsibility for first response to accidents from exits 114 to 123 along Interstate 5.

Hours of war-gaming accident scenarios, setting them up at junk yards and practicing the most challenging extrication situations have led to a 13-month track record by the FLEX team of two overall second places, a third, fourth and fifth in five competitions.

With its most recent second overall in the 2008 Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee competition at Chili, N.Y., last June, the team gained berths in 2009 national and world competitions, and officially lost its ability to fly below the radar, said battalion chief Art Doss. Before New York, the FLEX team's successes had all been in regional competitions. In New York, Doss said, there were more than 1,000 spectators in the stands.

The team couldn't have come so far so fast without its members being driven to take their jobs, and the competitions seriously, Doss said. Team members have devoted as many hours off the clock as on, logging more than 700 hours of training.

Every member has volunteered hundreds of hours to learning and practicing his craft.

"As we do the training, we're developing our own program," Doss said, "what we want and don't want, tools that work, tricks of the trade, how to get better use out of some of the tools we're already carrying."

Judges have called the Fort Lewis extrication team "surgeons" with power tools - torches, cutters, spreaders and saw zalls that free trapped bodies for emergency medical treatment from the most complexly twisted wreckage.

Engineer Jeff Coffey put the team together with the enthusiastic support of Fire Chief Dean Dixon, who saw the benefit in training on the most current extrication techniques with state-of-the-art tools.

Coffey acts as incident commander during the competitive scenarios, barking orders to the team as well as narrating its members' activities for spectators.

Each scenario is a surprise to the team that shows up prepared for anything.

"It's almost like a play in a sense," Doss said. "The tools are already set up in a pit. The cars are already set up. We walk in not knowing what's going on."

Joining Coffey, members included Doss, Eric Sheppard, Chad Cozby, Eric Teel, paramedic Ric Smith and alternate Scott Powers. Smith recently left to take a job in California, however, so the team is evaluating the skills of paramedics to replace the man named best paramedic in the Canadian Challenge in September 2007.

Doss said the recipe for the team's success includes equal parts passion for the job, knowledge of the most current tools and techniques and a healthy dose of confidence.

Prior to the main event last June in New York, the team conducted an informal meeting to share information about the opposing teams.

"We looked at each other and said, 'I don't see anything that impressive here that we don't already do,'" Doss said.

It also helps that members have special rapport that leads to a unique level of teamwork.

"To get where we were going we knew what we had to put into it," Doss said. "Working with them (team members) so much we developed an unspoken, nonverbal thing."

The upstart FLEX squad now challenges the best East Coast teams with much more history to draw on. But awards aside, the battalion chief said other benefits outweigh the notoriety, of sharpening life-saving proficiencies and developing esprit de corps.

"It really brought us together as a team, especially coming as far as quick as we did," Doss said.

Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.