In 1991, Dr. Paul Davis began the Firefighter Challenge – a high intensity competition for firefighters to promote health and wellness and bring awareness to the profession. This year, the Firefighter Challenge is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and today the non-profit organization hosts events across the globe for an array of first responder heroes. We were grateful to sit down with Melissa Shelton at the Firefighter Challenge who shared everything about its mission and the inspiration it spreads across the globe.
“It all came out of research. What does a firefighter go through and how can we prevent some of these injuries,” says Shelton. In 1975, Dr. Paul Davis received a U.S. Fire Administration grant to the University of Maryland to study the physical impacts on firefighters’ bodies. Dr. Davis started building sets to conduct research on the 5 essential functions of firefighting, putting firefighters through these sets to see how their bodies reacted. During this research, Dr. Davis realized that firefighters love to compete against each other. “Eventually these studies became one big course for the firefighters to compete and it became the Firefighter Challenge,” Shelton shares. Today, the competitions have amplified to a larger scale, featuring two semi-trucks holding props and a large tower to form one massive course. “We have competitors come from the local markets, as well as veterans, and they compete against each other for time,” Shelton shares.
At the start of 2022, Dr. Paul Davis announced his retirement from the Challenge to return to his focus on education and research. He has left the Firefighter Challenge in the hands of Russell Jackson as CEO. The Firefighter Challenge has been restructured from LLC to 501(c)3, and great things are on the horizon for the organization, like new events to benefit local charities.
Our mission is to inspire first responders to aim for the highest level of fitness, wellness, and safety.
To eradicate preventable injuries and deaths of First Responders by leveraging the synergy of discovery, knowledge, spirit, and collaboration.
About the Organization
The Firefighter Challenge falls under the parent non-profit organization called the First Responder Institute. Founded in 1999, the First Responder Institute has been providing research and counsel to first responder organizations around the world. The Firefighter Challenge and other programs are run under this organization.
50% of all firefighter deaths are cardiac related. “It’s crazy because it’s preventable. We have genetic factors. But typically, with weight, diet, and exercise, we can prevent a lot of cardiac events. This is what has really propelled Dr. Paul in how we can prevent these injuries,” Shelton shares. In addition to promoting wellness in the competitors themselves, the events allow the public to witness the strength and comradery in the profession, as well as envision what actually occurs on the scene for these men and women. “It gives you a whole new perspective.”
The Firefighter Challenge itself take only a few minutes and simulates the intense physical tasks firefighters complete on the job. The course includes running up a 47-foot high tower, hoisting a 42-pound pack, pulling a hose, opening it up and shooting a target, and finally, picking up a 165-pound mannequin and dragging it 150-feet to the finish line. Some participants choose to compete in everyday athletic gear, while others compete in the full firefighter gear. The Firefighter Challenge runs individual and team events, tandems, and relays. Active and veteran firefighters alike compete, and any person who would like to try is welcome.
The Firefighter Challenges are held from coast to coast from April through November. “The challenge is fun, but also has a purpose. That purpose is to inspire fitness and continue the research of keeping these men and women healthy, whether it’s firefighters, military, police, or EMTs,” Shelton notes.
In 2022, under new leadership, the organization will continue to focus on its Challenges, while adding in another cause. The brand new Charity Challenge will be the same challenge, yet all for local charity. “Under our new leadership, we are still the Challenge competition; however, we are adding another layer, the Charity Challenge to bring out local businesses and groups to compete for their local charities…taking a great event and adding more benefits to our hosts! Russell has had 27 successful years of non profit creation and leadership, we are grateful that Dr. Paul found an incredible successor to take us into the future,” Shelton continues.
Refocusing After the Pandemic
When the pandemic hit, instead of events, the organization focused on training, visiting various academies. The team also worked to ensure their events were approachable for anyone. “We need to celebrate everyone at the station, not just those that are running it in under two minutes, to really stay grounded in our mission to help promote fitness. So, we also emphasize our relays. We say it’s 5 times the fun and 1/5th the work. It doesn’t matter what size you are or your level of fitness. It builds that camaraderie and competition that builds fire departments,” Shelton says. “Firefighter fitness saves lives. That’s the bottom line. Let’s get everyone to know that anyone can come out here,” she continues.
Each year, at the end of their regular season, the Firefighter Challenge hosts a Worlds championship event. Firefighters from around the globe travel to the US to compete and enjoy a weeklong celebration. “Typically, the week features wild card events where participants run for timing and seating. Then, Friday and Saturday are the final events. It’s the best of the best in the world,” Shelton says. The 2021 Worlds event was held at Fort Pierce and St. Lucie in Treasure Coast, Florida. “It’s a mid-sized community. They are extremely welcoming in Treasure Coast. The hospitality is amazing,” Shelton shares. Not much sounds better than a weeklong firefighter celebration along Treasure Coast’s white sandy beaches!
Shelton attributes the organization’s continual growth to the firefighters and the energy they bring to each event. Such momentum is contagious and drives the organization and participants. “It’s the firefighters. If you’ve never been around firefighters, they have this big brotherhood. They get the word out. And then the communities, we’ve had amazing communities and sponsors.”
Shelton shares the powerful emotions that the challenges conjure in witnessing the strength of each competitor. “You can imagine the struggles that they went through to finish these challenges and reach their goals. It’s also about people deciding to change their lives. There are stories of people on relay teams where they encouraged a buddy to come out and they became healthier, got off medications they were on, and started living life differently. That’s all we want. We just want these guys to go home. That’s our goal. To get them at their highest level, whatever that is to them – their level of fitness, wellness, and safety, so that they go home at the end of the day,” Shelton says.
Planning for the Future
The schedule is announced for 2022, with more events to be announced soon. The Firefighter Challenge is always looking to plan for the future, so reach out today to see if your city could be a good fit for 2023 and beyond. This year, the organization has increasingly focused on emphasizing community. “When we travel to a destination, I want to make sure we are showcasing that community and the best it has to offer,” Shelton notes. Whether it be a city’s quintessential cuisine or its iconic attractions, the Firefighter Challenge loves to incorporate local culture into their events.
When it comes to their requirements, it’s simple. All the group needs for a successful weekend event is a parking lot, or a comparable flat 200×200 space. The setup and cleanup are easy. “All we need is a parking lot and local community support. We need the space and volunteers to set the course. I will book into 2023. The sooner we book the better. We like to be ahead of the game,” Shelton says.
For the past 30 years, the Firefighter Challenge’s work has improved first responder wellness, raised public awareness, and fostered hope and inspiration among participants and spectators. With such momentum and its touching mission, the organization is sure to continue to thrive for the next 30 years.
For more information and to reach out to the Firefighter Challenge’s team, head to their Playeasy profile here!