Fort Gordon firefighters Capt. Brandon Cunningham, Radrickus Franklin, Joseph Coleman, and David Jesson could have spent the past several weeks relaxing a number of ways, but instead they chose to push themselves physically and mentally – and the trade-off proved itself well-worth it.
The firefighters traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they competed in the Team Relay portion of the annual Firefighter Combat Challenge (regional level) Aug. 10-11.
Known by many as “the toughest two minutes in sports,” the Firefighter Combat Challenge tests and brings to light firefighters’ abilities and athleticism through a competition that simulates essential firefighting skills. Those skills include climbing a five-story tower, dragging and hoisting a firehose, simulating forcible entry, “rescuing” a 165-pound mannequin, and racing around various obstacles – all while wearing full-bunker gear.
Having participated in last year’s competition as a team, each of the men knew what to expect – or so they thought.
“It was supposed to be where you go out there and compete one time and that was your time, but it ended up being a tournament-style, which was literally a last-minute change,” Coleman explained.
“That was the hardest part,” Franklin added. ““I was thinking, ‘one and done,’ and then it changed.”
With Cunningham nearing exhaustion from competing in individual events the day prior (winning first and second places), the team knew they had to change their strategy if they wanted a chance of placing.
“Once we got thrown the curveball of knowing we’d be doing multiple races, we had to figure out how we were going to line up for each race and the best kind of team setup,” Cunningham said.
Then there were the changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From requirements to spray and wait for cleaning solution on their gloves to having to maintain social distance throughout the event, this year’s competition ended up presenting an unexpected set of challenges.
“Usually they have a pretty big pool of volunteers, but because of COVID, they hardly had any, so after we raced, we also had to help reset the course and then clear out of there for the next group,” Cunningham said.
But just like they would have done in a real-life situation, where their line of work can be unpredictable, the team adapted and overcame, taking third place in the Team Relay with a time of 1 minute and 16 seconds – their best time to date. Given the circumstances, it was a big accomplishment, but not surprising to those who work alongside them.
“I watched them train … and it’s not only about the physical training, but it’s about the mental training, the diet, the sleep, it’s the whole mindset,” said Deputy Fire Chief Robert Gruber.
Putting the stiffness of the competition into perspective, Cunningham said Fort Gordon is very small in comparison to other departments that competed. Using Palm Beach County, Florida, as an example, Cunningham said the county had a huge pool of firefighters to choose from when forming and sending a team.
“They have hundreds of firefighters to choose from whereas Fort Gordon only has around 60 to pull from,” Cunningham said. “That not only speaks to our dedication and commitment, but the necessity of being fit for duty and being able to operate as a small department that is minimally staffed.”
Having Cunningham, a repeat world champion competitor as the team’s captain, has helped tremendously, Gruber said. But all of the men agree it goes beyond Cunningham and the four-man team.
“We’re very tightknit as a team, but as a department, all those guys are helping,” Jesson said. “We move around trucks, shifts and things like that, so they’re supportive in that nature. It’s definitely a department-wide team effort.”
Still, more rewarding than receiving a medal or public recognition is the lasting effect the competition has had on them as a team – and not just on the group of four – but the entire fire department.
“Everyone from the fire chief down sees their commitment and they know the underlying challenges because we can’t support it fiscally, so that takes even more dedication and desire,” said Assistant Fire Chief Paul Zanata. “They’re out there representing the Army and Fort Gordon essentially on their own, and they do it with pride.”
Due largely to a lack of financial support, it is unlikely the team will compete in the world championship, for which they’ve qualified. But the men are already talking about next year and hope that by then, they will receive some type of funding.
“What I see here in our department is an interest to be a part of it in whatever capacity we can, so I think that’s the most important thing,” Cunningham said. ““If there’s a good push for support, it would motivate us more to get out there and do it.”