It takes training to carry a 42-pound hose up six flights of stairs in full firefighting gear. It also takes stairs. “Many big fire departments have a training facility where they can set up a full obstacle course, including a tower with six flights of stairs,” says Weronika Murray, one of five Inuvik, NWT firefighters who competed last June against teams from major Canadian cities in a skills competition. For the Inuvik department, servicing the community of 3,300, that sort of investment in equipment just doesn't make financial sense, says fire chief Jim Sawkins. The few large staircases in town are unavailable to training.
But this small squad from the Beaufort Delta is undeterred. When a small department goes up against full-time firefighters from major cities like Edmonton and Calgary, there’s bound to be a few hints of David versus Goliath. After their first showing at the Prairie Regionals last year in Spruce Meadows, Alberta, at least four members from the Inuvik Fire Department are headed back again in June with aims to take on every Goliath in their way to the FireFit Championships.
It’s not like the crew, members of the 42-person on-call fire department, aren’t used to pressure. Firefighting is a tough job anywhere but when, for half the year, temperatures threaten the most important tool at your disposal in a firefight—water—it becomes a lot more challenging.
Entire buildings, once crawling with flames, can be crystallized in white frost after the water used to douse it freezes solid. This was the scene after a row of townhomes was destroyed by fire and ice in Iqaluit in 2012. Inuvik was decorated as a similar sort of Tim Burton vision of winter after fire crews put out four blazes in just a few weeks over March and April of last year. An office building and multiple housing units dripped with pointed icicles and remaining walls were masked in white. What does this mean for firefighters? A higher likelihood of building collapse under the added weight. Not to mention the threat of frostbite in the cold air surrounding the flames.
The first year the Inuvik crew headed down to FireFit was a learning experience. The competition is made up of individual and team challenges. Competitors first climb 60 steps to the top of a tower carrying the 42-pound hose over their shoulder, then hoist a 45-pound donut roll of hose and rope up from the ground. Then they run back down the steps and use a mallet to hammer at an 80-pound beam on the ground, moving it past a target—simulating busting through a blocked door. After running through a course of hydrants, they pick up a charged hose and drag it 75 feet, hitting a target with the stream, before dragging a 165-pound dummy 100 feet to the finish. All of this in full gear, breathing from an oxygen tank. “I was pretty nervous before my individual race but the atmosphere was so wonderful, everybody was extremely supportive and welcoming,” says Murray. “People thought it was great we were there, coming from a small community so far away.”
Before they went to the competition, Sawkins brought in the course for national firefighter fitness training. He says their first runs through were an eye-opener but the group put in the training to bring their endurance and speed up by leaps and bounds. It’s not only great for competition, but for their heart health: being a firefighter is an extreme test of what a body can do. The leading cause of death among firefighters is cardiac arrest under extreme exertion, and these people are fit. As Murray says, “You can be a beast at the gym but when you put that gear on, it’s a whole different story.”
Other Northerners have tested their skills at similar competitions and many have returned to the North winners. Iqaluit firefighter Mark Dainton has taken the title at challenges across Canada and the United States. In 2005, a team from Yellowknife made it as far as the nationals, winning a spot in the world championships but were unable to come up with the funding needed to get to the event in Miami. In 2015, a team from Whitehorse also competed in the Alberta regionals.
Now that the Inuvik team has been through a round of FireFit, they have a few ideas on where they can improve. “We’ve learned to work around the fact we don’t have the facilities,” says Murray. Sometimes it means getting creative: The crew is working on a weight and pulley system that simulates hoisting a 45-pound bundle up three storeys. And rather than build a six-flight staircase, a few extra runs up a local hill can challenge their endurance.
As of writing this, it’s December. The FireFit team is putting in extra time to train in full gear for the the competition. But its benefits won’t stop at the podium. Outside the fire hall, the temperature is regularly dipping below -30 C, adding more extremes to an already dangerous job. “It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Murray.