Saturday, February 26, 2011

A War Horse’s Perspective

Joining the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge last year as a prize sponsor, Paul Conway Shields is the recognized industry leader. Competitors who have placed at Regional, National and World events have taken home unique mounted shields, ready for display in a myriad of locations ranging from their dens to fire academy walls. Wanting to get a glimpse behind the scenes, I visited the Paul Conway Shields headquarters in New Berlin, WI this past Thursday.

I asked Paul Conway how he got started in the shield business. Like a lot of small businessmen and as a young fireman with the Milwaukee Fire Department he saw a need in the field and believed he could do better for the men and women in the fire service. Starting out in his parents’ basement he did just that by a long shot. Waiting for up to 12 weeks for an order to arrive was the impetus to “build the better mouse trap.” It’s not a terribly complicated manufacturing process. You take leather hides and use dies to cut them to their final shape. Layers are sewn together and graphics added, as specified by the customer. Although some of the process is now automated, much of it is done like it was done 25 years ago, BY HAND. You can choose from a wide variety of web-based templates that include colors of all sort, badges, numbers, passports, and mounting configurations. (

But far more interesting than the mechanics of making fire helmet shields was the conversation that I had with Paul about the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge and his participation a few years back when we held a Challenge in Janesville. Coming straight from work at the Milwaukee Fire Department, Paul and his buddies arrived to what would be the unexpected sight of firefighters warming up on Keiser bikes and a wide assortment of “very serious guys.”

I think that this impression is hugely important because it typifies the mindset and attitudes of a lot of firefighters. But the big difference is that to Paul, this was not a deterrent. He thought through the whole process logically and rather than heading to the exits; he rationalized, “this is just stuff that I do every day on the job.” And he paced himself through the course, ending up on his feet and thinking, “That wasn’t so bad. What’s the big deal?”

The unprompted brand recognition of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge is nearly universal in the fire service. If you haven’t heard of the Challenge, you’re not likely to be moving up the career ladder. But what continues to be mystifying is the reticence to come out and participate. We may be the collective victims of our own success. By that I mean that we have conjured up images in the minds of many that only the super-human can play- this sport is not for the ordinary.

Many years ago when I ran my first Marine Corps Marathon, I had no illusions that I would win, or place. But I was pretty sure that I could finish. How far back in the pack was the only question. And that’s been pretty much the way it’s been for any of the road races in which I participated. I run my own race against my own PR. The preponderance of firefighters is likewise racing against themselves or some sub-category of friends or rivals. There’s not a lot of room on the top of the podium in any sport. But the camaraderie within this sport is directly proportional to the intensity of attempting to do what is a reasonable facsimile of structural firefighting, but do it in an insanely short period of time.

There have been a lot of first timers who have come out thinking that they could ace this thing, only to flame out at the top of the tower, or 20 meters short on the runway. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, but that they failed to pace themselves and the gas tank went empty too soon. You really need to get one on the books to get a sense of how to strategically attack the course. Finishing is hugely important and invaluable as a reference point for future races.

Next month at the FDIC, Paul Conway with 26 years on and most recently promoted to Assistant Chief of MFD, will be back on the course. He believes in leading from the front and has a great sense of the importance and benefits of firefighter fitness. Clearly actions speak louder than words here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To Be Perfectly Clear...

The rules for bunker gear have been unchanged since the Challenge started twenty years ago. For ease of interpretation, we simply adopted NFPA 1971. Companies who make a business in the protective apparel market provide representatives to the 1971 Technical Committee. This committee writes the testing standards that everyone has agreed to follow.

We have observed a major paradigm shift from rubber to leather boots over these past two decades. Very few Competitors wear rubber boots. Starting with Ranger footwear in 1992, we’ve had several companies sponsor the footwear category. For the past four years, Globe Footwear has provided over 70 pairs of boots as “loaners.”

Knowing that the ergonomics of footwear are very important in sport, it’s not surprising that a disproportionate amount of attention has been directed to form, fit and function. Removing the steel shank while reducing the weight, is illegal. So is wearing a non-NFPA compliant boot.

If you don’t have a legal boot, you’re welcome to borrow a pair of Globes. We will be inspecting for compliance including a valid NFPA 1971 label. Also note, resoled boots must likewise be compliant with NFPA guidelines.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chiefy, LLC: Dive Adventures

If you’ve been in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge for about six plus years, you’ll remember Deerfield Beach, the Blowout and a few World Challenge events just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. The man, the myth, the legend behind this brainchild was none other than Jim Mathie, division chief for the Deerfield Fire Department. Not having seen Jim in a few years, I called him up and he and I, and our respective wives had a nice cruise Friday on his 29’ SeaVee, powered by twin Mercury 250HP-outboards. Jim is enjoying retirement to the max and has discovered the world of branding. If you saw the movie Jaws, then you know that Roy Scheider got the nickname “Chiefy” and was the slayer of Jaws, the maniacal shark that was terrorizing New England.

In Jim Mathie’s case, he’s the guy terrorizing the spiny lobsters off the coast of Boca Raton. Jim’s writing a book on how to catch lobsters and has brought out a logo’d line of Chiefy Dive Adventures apparel. I can’t think of a more idyllic lifestyle; putting in 30 years in a job you love and spending the rest of your life doing your favorite avocation: diving.

One of the sad parts of a length of service retirement program is that people sometimes believe that they’re going to do all these marvelous things, but really don’t plan to make it happen. Taking a dirt nap a year or so after you’ve retired isn’t what most people have in mind. But without taking care of your health and fitness, you’re leaving way too much to chance.

Putting effort into your personal fitness pays dividends now in the form of a safer and more effective firefighter, and this effort is “deposits“ that you put into the bank of longevity. Time has a way of flying; and the more years you accrue, it seems the faster the markers fly by. I’m probably preaching to the choir as participants of the Challenge “get it.”

I hope all of you max out your retirement, and continue to enjoy all the active lifestyle things that you always wanted to do- and have the body with which to do it. If you end up looking for lobsters, check out Jim’s website: you might just find yourself among that rare 6% of divers who actually catch bugs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Flirting with the Rules

From its inception, the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge has used the NFPA standards (1971) as the criteria for enforcing uniformity in what constitutes legal bunker gear. We’ve had “players” over the years who have sought an advantage by bending, if not breaking the rules. Last year, we got serious about enforcing the footwear rule. There was some unexpected push back. Understand that in our infancy, leather boots were a rare sight. Now, there’s not a serious competitor who’s playing in anything other than leather. The ergonomic advantages are significant. Knowing what we do about weight, i.e., a pound on the foot is worth 5 on the back, everyone wants to go light. If the boot does not have a label stating that it is compliant, i.e., vapor barrier, toe cap and protective shank, then why push it?

Globe has done an incredible job on creating a great product and that’s evidenced in the numbers of Challenge competitors who have switched. It’s difficult to ensure that every single competitor is playing by the rules. It takes a dedicated official to screen for adherence. Firefighters, being honorable people rarely cheat. But, unfortunately, a few do, making us now screen everyone to the best of our ability. At this stage of the game, “I didn’t know” doesn’t cut it. If ever there was a population that does know NFPA 1971, its the competitors of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge.

It’s my best hope for season 20 that everyone steps up and plays fair. Look for the label. This coming March, John Granby and I will do the front-end screening on the 1500 firefighters who will be participating in the Scott Seattle Stair Climb. Same rules apply. We’re hoping that playing fair is a universal attribute of firefighters everywhere.