By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
LAS VEGAS – Academy firefighter teams took three gold medals and two silver medals at the World Firefighter Combat Challenge XVIII under the lights of downtown Las Vegas, Nov. 16-20.
The Firefighter Combat Challenge simulates the physical demands of real-life firefighting by running firefighters through a series of five back-to-back-breaking tasks against a stopwatch. The five tasks in the challenge include lifting a firehose up five stories, simulating a forced entry into a building, hitting a small target with water from another firehose and dragging a 175-pound dummy backwards across a finish line to “safety.”
The Academy sent 16 firefighters and combined forces with two Colorado Springs Fire Department firefighters to field six teams at this year’s event in the categories of ladies’ tandem, ladies’ relay, men’s relay, men’s tandem, over-40 relay and over-40 tandem.
Three of those teams – the ladies relay, ladies tandem and over 40 relay – each took a gold, while the men’s relay and over-40 tandem duos each brought home a silver.
The ladies’ relay team, known as the Fembots, consists of Airman 1st Class Jessica Morehouse, Elaine Perkins and Andrea Caraway from the Academy Fire Department and Stacey Billapando and Lisa Smith from the Colorado Springs Fire Department. The Fembots ran their first competition in the June 26-27 firefighter combat challenge regionals at the Academy.
“We ran, and afterward, we realized we could do something amazing,” Mrs. Billapando said.
At the national firefighter combat challenge, the team impressed and advanced to the world competition. At the world level, the Fembots qualified for the finals in a single-elimination tournament with a field of eight.
Encouragement came from both the Fembots’ families and their fellow firefighters. Mrs. Billapando’s son shouted “Go Mom” and “Mom rocks” above the din of the Fremont Street crowd. Airman Morehouse’s family and fellow firefighters added to the crowd’s roar, while one of her friends secretly taped an inspirational message to the back of her jacket.
The Fembots didn’t let their cheering contingent down. In the semifinal round, the Fembots faced one of the powerhouse teams of the challenge, the Women of Stihl. But the Fembots took a one-step lead going up the five-story competition tower, added to the lead on the hose hoist, and were a almost a full event ahead when Billapando finished the Keiser Sled. The Fembots clocked in at 1:47.29, while their competitors finished at just over the two-minute mark.
In the finals, the Fembots faced the 2008 ladies relay champs, the Atlanta-based Clayton County Women’s Relay team, a perennial presence in the finals.
“It was tough. They definitely gave us a run for our money, that’s for sure,” Airman Morehouse said.
The Fembots established a four-step lead going up the tower and floored the gas from there on out, ending the course at 1:44.49 for the championship.
“Definitely everything fell right into place. All of us girls ran perfect-not only ran perfect, but ran our best. Perfect runs, no little mistakes,” said Airman Morehouse.
Not only did the Fembots earn their first world championship, but they also broke the world record time for the ladies’ relay.
World records also fell at the boots of the ladies’ tandem of Airman Morehouse and Mrs. Billapando. They broke the ladies’ tandem world record twice in October and owned the record going into the world competition.
At the competition here, Mrs. Billapando and Airman Morehouse broke their world record twice more, advancing to the finals in a field of eight. The duo made it to the finals to compete against the Northern Ladies’ tandem. The Academy-CSFD firefighters took the lead early and never let off the gas, claiming another world title.
“It wasn’t my best dummy drag, but it was good. We still got a good time,” Airman Morehouse said. The Academy-CSFD duo ended with a time of 2:00.52, more than 12 seconds ahead of the Northern Ladies’ tandem.
Mrs. Billapando also earned another gold medal. She competed with Brandon Cunningham of Fort Gordon, Ga., in the co-ed tandem category. That duo finished with a time of 1:34.54, giving the Springs firefighter three world titles this year.
The Academy’s third world title came from the men’s over-40 relay team of Ken Helgerson, Dan McAuliffe, Rod Sanders, Brian Pille and Ron Prettyman, who entered the men’s over-40 relay finals as one of 64 teams in that single-elimination tournament. To win, they’d had to run the course six times over the course of one evening.
Their first win came when Helgerson dragged the rescue dummy across the finish line five seconds ahead of the Canadian Classic team. They then faced the 2008 champs, Clayton County, in the next round. The lead when back and forth, and Clayton County crossed the finish line at 1:20.52, ahead of USAFA’s 1:21.52. But penalties killed Clayton County, as they drew a penalty for handing the baton off ahead of the point which they were allowed to – much like in football when the quarterback passes the line of scrimmage and then completes a forward pass. That was a 5-second penalty for Clayton County. The Academy team drew a 2-second penalty for hose placement, but the math added up in the Academy team’s favor. Team USAFA racked up three more wins to advance to the finals against Team Dr. Pepper Over 40.
The Academy team faced Team Dr. Pepper Over 40 for the finals after advancing through the first four rounds. The Academy firefighters took a one-step lead up the tower, lost it on the way down and regained it on the Keiser Sled. Their competitors closed the gap and make it a neck-and-neck race at the rescue dummy drag. About 20 feet from the finish line, the Dr. Pepper firefighter stumbled with the dummy. The Academy’s Over-40 team crossed the finish line with a time of 1:19.74, nine seconds ahead of their competitors, to earn their first world championship in the over-40 category.
“It feels unbelievable, especially in the category we’re in,” said Mr. Helgerson, the Academy Fire Department’s assistant fire chief. “All the other over-40 teams are so good, and we’ve been chasing them for a long time, it feels good to finely get one up on them.”
The team consists of retired active duty and prior-service Airmen.
“Most of us over-40 guys have graduated from riding a fire truck or responding to emergencies to a desk job, so it’s really wonderful to get out here and do what we came into the career field to do, and get back to the basics,” Mr. Helgerson said.
Two members of the over-40 relay team also competed as a tandem. Helgerson and McAuliffe made it to the final round to earn the silver medal with a time of 1:25.14, five seconds behind first place.
Also on the world stage was the men’s relay team, Team USAFA, consisting of Roy Dalton, Pat Kraft, Senior Airman Tyler Moran, Anthony “Tank” McMurtry, Hans Barkley and Stephen Hardman. Team USAFA finished with a silver, meeting Team NorCal in the championship match. The Academy team finished with at time of 1:15.09, just four seconds and a few steps behind Team NorCal.
The men’s relay team also fielded two tandem teams. The pair of Senior Airman David Luckie and Barkley finished in 11th place with a time of 1:24.23, edging out their fellow Academy firefighters Dalton and McMurtry, who finished in 12th place with a time of 1:24.70.
Airman Luckie, the 2008 rookie of the year, also competed in the individual category. He finished in 23rd place with a time of 1:36.18.
As the dust settled on the competition, the Academy had claimed three world championships, was part of a fourth world title, and won a pair of silver medals and three other top-25 finishes.
“I could not be more proud of this group of professional firefighters. To compete at this level is amazing, but to come home with all of these medals is just phenomenal,” said Academy fire chief Ernst Piercy. “None of this could happen without the right mixture of dedicated fire fighters and leadership and support from the top. To have the base fire marshal and the wing commander at the event was definitely a motivating factor for our competitors, and certainly helped them achieve this monumental feat.”
The Academy teams have become highly regarded among their peers, as a result of their efforts over the years
“Having them here is a great commercial for the Air Force Academy,” said Col. Rick LoCastro, 10th Air Base Wing commander, as he watched the competition. “I hadn’t been here one hour when I had 20-plus strangers coming up to me saying great things about the Academy: how professional our guys are, how it’s great to see them compete, asking questions about the Academy.”
A handful of other bases also entered the competition, including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Travis AFB, Calif.; the Department of Defense Firefighter Academy at Goodfellow AFB, Texas; and now Peterson AFB, Colo.
Team Peterson earned the rookie of the year honors for the team category, based on their spirit and improvement throughout the year. As Team Peterson accepted their award, they thanked the Academy Fire Department for its assistance in helping them train, decrease their times and improve their techniques.
“That felt good, because we’re all one big Air Force team,” Colonel LoCastro said.
But more important than all the thank-yous, medals and championships is the increase in mission effectiveness, he added.
“I don’t want to overlook the camaraderie – that increases mission capability,” Colonel LoCastro said. ” When they come back to the station, they’re a much tighter unit because of it. That’s increased mission capability that you really can’t wrap your arms around-you really can’t put a price tag on it-but it might be the most valuable thing they take out of this.”