PALESTINE — While it might garner a few headlines, for the five members of the Palestine Fire Department's Firefighter Combat Challenge putting out a massive structure fire in their hometown and then going on to become finalists in the Firefighter World Combat Challenge XXII is them just doing what they love and loving what they do.
Palestine firefighters Clay Starling, Juan Quinonez, Nathan Reed, Brandon Mathis and Tim Ingram are a team both at work and in competition. All five are members of the department's 'A' team, which the quintet agree, makes organizing training sessions for the Challenges less challenging.
"It really helps with training scheduling that we all work the same shifts," Reed said with a laugh.
The group recently placed in the top 16 of the LiftMaster Championship competitions held in Tyler earlier this month, qualifying them to compete in the up-coming World Challenge XXII at the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas later this month.
"This is an event that some of the biggest fire departments in the world compete in," Quinonez said. "We're one of the smallest department represented."
According to the event's website, www.firefighterchallenge.com, "the Challenge annually attracts hundreds of U.S. and Canadian municipal fire departments at more than 25 locations and is now expanding to countries around the world, including New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa. The Challenge seeks to encourage firefighter fitness and demonstrate the profession's rigors to the public. Wearing full bunker gear and breathing apparatus, pairs of competitors race head-to-head as they simulate the physical demands of real-life firefighting by performing a linked series of five tasks including climbing the five-story tower, hoisting, chopping, dragging hoses and rescuing a life-sized, 175 pound 'victim' as they race against themselves, their opponent and the clock."
And this year is the best they've ever done, they said.
"(An event official) said this was the hardest two minutes in sports -- we believe it," team veteran Ingram joked. "The crews that compete in these events are some of the finest athletes in the world."
Quinonez added, "This is the first year we had a real chance. Other years we did our best, but we really weren't able to seriously compete with some of the departments before."
Each crew member competes in the event he's best suited for.
"It was very similar to what you have to go through when you're applying for a position with a department," Quinonez explained. "What are your strengths, what are you not so strong at, like, Nate climbs because he's got long legs -- we each do the event we're strongest at, but we train in all the events, just like on the job."
Participating in the competitions isn't required of the firefighters, but all five agree, being members of the team is just a reflection of their love of being members of the fire department.
"There's a lot of dignity in being a firefighter," Starling, the team's newest member, said. "It's more than just wearing the shirt, it's a way of life."
One they acknowledge they wouldn't be able to do half so well without the support of the community and especially of Battalion Chief Mike Phillips.
"The chief is great," Quinonez said. "He supports us 100 percent and we really appreciate that. We just want to represent Palestine and show 'em what we can do!"
Reed added, "Seeing the flags hanging in the bay helps the legacy live on, and anytime we add another one, it's a great feeling."
Residents or businesses interested in sponsoring the team's upcoming trip to Nevada can call Ingram, 903-729-7100, or the Palestine Fire Department, 903-729-3552 to donate funds or supplies.