April 3, 2014, Abu Dhabi – Not only are there several dozen Canadian firefighters participating in the UAE World Firefighter Challenge in Abu Dhabi this week, but there are two fire chiefs here as well. John deHooge of Ottawa Fire Services was invited by the UAE Ministry of the Interior to speak at the conference portion of the International Exhibition for Security and National Resilience. I caught up with him in the exhibition hall and asked him how his presentation, titled Proactive and Reactive Measures in Dealing with Major Fires, had gone.
“Very well, considering that time was running short and I had less than 10 minutes to present my topic,” he said. “I just edited it down to the critical slides and tried to pack it in as best I could.”
Lyle Quan of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario is also here in Abu Dhabi with the enviable task of being a guest fire chief for the challenge. Quan and I spoke during a four-hour break in the races due to the midday heat.
“I’m very pleased to have been invited to be part of this as a guest fire chief,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to bring this sport to this area of the world.
“I must say that the heat is factor in the races,” he continued. “You can see how people are losing their steam very quickly.”
Aside from the event, Quan said he hasn’t had a chance to get around too much, other than to go to the Grand Mosque.
“I’m impressed with how friendly the people are,” he said. “I’m also looking forward to getting to Dubai this week to see the sites there, but it will be a rush tour.”
Waterloo Fire Rescue’s Dwayne Drover, who is also the 2009 world champion, had earlier relayed to me how much he appreciated Quan’s support in allowing him to shift his vacation time to allow him to participate in the organization of the event. Quan said it’s a small thing to do.
“Dwayne plays such an important part in the event, it’s just non-stop for him,” Quan graciously added. “I’m glad that we could help out in a small way.”
As a Fire Fighting in Canada columnist and student of leadership, Quan clearly understands how a small gesture can have a large impact.
I also had the chance to speak with Amber Bowman of Central York Fire Services in Ontario, who was one of the favourites to win the female individual race. She did not disappoint, having won the event with a time of 2:20. I asked her for her impressions of Abu Dhabi and the challenge event.
“This is awesome,” she said. “Obviously, coming to a totally different part of the world was a huge factor in bringing in all of these competitors, myself included. It’s been amazing, the buildings, sites you’ve never seen, sitting on a patio at 11 o’clock at night with a breeze blowing across, it’s pretty incredible.
“The event itself has been very well put together, it’s very professional. It’s been right up there with the rest of them.”
Specific to the race, Bowman said the stairs are a little bit different. The stairways for the fire challenge events here in the UAE are constructed of industrial scaffolding, with a vertical structural pole running up the middle between each set of risers. Many of the competitors have estimated that this adds 10 seconds to their race time, but Bowman felt that it may be as much as 20 seconds for those who rely heavily on pulling themselves up the stairs.
“For my race, mentally, I just needed to get to the top, so I did whatever it took,” she said. “Single steps, double steps, whatever pulls and turns I needed to do, once I got to the top the rope pull is the rope pull. Then I just needed to get down as quickly as possible without getting my arms tangled up in the poles. After that, I’m a back-half girl so I know it’s my race at that point.”
I asked Bowman about the $10,000 prize she would be receiving. “I’m pretty excited about that,” she said. “That will pay for my season back in North America for sure, and maybe a little bit more.
“It’s a huge bonus, because being a female athlete and an individual without a team – I’ve been competing in this sport for three years and tried to get so many companies to sponsor me and it’s been very difficult. So this will be my sponsorship for the summer.”
Before the competition began, Bowman was helping two women from the Abu Dhabi Police train for this event. Those women, who had never previously been on SCBA, ran hard. They struggled with the rope pull, but both made it to the dummy drag before completely exhausting themselves.
“They were amazing,” Bowman said. “Everyone in the stands and on the course were cheering like crazy. First of all, they were wearing their burkas under their bunker gear, they’re on air and wearing bunker gear for the first time in their lives, and they made it just as far or farther than many of the local men. So kudos to them; it was truly inspirational.
Be sure to check out the 911 Firefighter Challenge Facebook page for photos from the events.
April 1, 2014, Abu Dhabi – Things at the UAE World Firefighter Challenge are really starting to come together. There was activity on the course site all day yesterday, and it continued past 11 p.m. as I left the site to write this blog.
I promised in my blog yesterday that I would have some comments from 2009 world champion Dwayne Drover of Waterloo Fire Rescue, who is here helping 911 Firefighter Challenge with logistics and operations. I made him stand in one place for a couple of minutes – not an easy task – along with Trevor Fera, the world champion in 2010, of Greater Sudbury Fire Services. Fera had been working out feverishly on the course for a couple of hours but was kind enough to take a break to speak with me.
As it turns out, Fera and Drover are two of the three Canadian firefighters who have previously been to the UAE. I will try to catch Darren Hillman of Windsor Fire and Rescue Services, the third firefighter, at some point today. I asked the two former world champions about their first impressions.
“The organization of the event has been unbeatable; Mr. Drover’s been awesome, he’s making it easy for us,” Fera said. “It’s been good, it’s a good facility.”
This is Drover’s second winter season as a member of the 911 event team, but this is the largest event, so far, in the Middle East. I asked Drover about the development of the UAE local competitors and the other Gulf Region teams.
“Well, as I remember from the first time I saw them, they were struggling just to get through the course, but over the last few years they keep getting stronger,” he said. “There’s one guy, Badran Alkhoori, this guy’s an animal. He’s the fastest guy in the UAE at around 1:40. These guys are gung-ho. Every time I see them, they’re training so hard.”
I’m not as close to the competitors as Drover, but I’ve seen some of these UAE firefighters a couple of times a year since 2009, and I have noticed some incredible changes in a few of them, and a genuine improvement in the overall program. I asked Drover to explain the improvement in attitude and commitment.
“Well, I would say they got bitten by the bug that’s bitten every one of us,” he said. “Once you try it, and you see it, and you train for it – and once you do it, it gets into your head that you always can do better. That’s where it starts. Add in meeting all of these guys from all over the world – it’s incredible.”
I had seen Fera working with Amber Bowman of Central York Fire Services on the cylinder exchange portion of the tandem race. The two are paired together for the mixed tandem category to be run on Thursday. The SCBA being used here is an Interspiro unit, which is not the same as the equipment the North American competitors are used to.
“It’s a little bit of a change,” Fera said. “Definitely, you’ve got to calm down and make sure you do the exchange properly. I think that’s where the race is going to be won.”
Finally, I had to sandbag Fera with the same question I put to the Canadian women earlier: Does the fact that there is prize money available – US$10,000 for first place, US$6,000 for second and US$4,000 for third – make a difference?
Fera did not hesitate with his answer. “Yes it does,” he said. “I think that after so many years of doing this, it’s fun to win, but you’re doing it more for fun and camaraderie, but now you have that drive again. I want to win, and it’s a good feeling. It’s nice.”
I will talk to more of the Canadian firefighters today, ahead of the start of the individual competition categories on Wednesday.
March 31, 2014, Abu Dhabi – I’m blogging this week from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, specifically from the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, site of the first UAE World Firefighter Challenge. This is the first firefighter challenge event of this scope and caliber to take place outside of North America, and the response has been incredible. I don’t have a final list – I will include that in another blog – but we have competitors coming from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, France, Jordan, Singapore, Poland, Sudan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and of course a large Canadian contingent. The event has been organized by Dubai-based 911 Firefighter Challenge, with the sponsorship and official support of the UAE Ministry of the Interior.
Aside from covering the hotel rooms for competitors and arranging discounted airfares, the ministry has put up some serious prize money. In each category, the individuals will be competing for a prize of US$10,000 for first place, US$6,000 for second and US$4,000 for third. Not too shabby, indeed.
As I wrote this, the locals were training on and around the site, including a contingent of women from the Abu Dhabi Police. The women were working hard; they seemed a bit intimidated by their first look at the course, but they also received some valuable guidance. The first three early arriving competitors from Canada – Jalene Cartwright of the Fort McMurray Fire Department, Lambton College graduate Tabitha Siegfried, and Carla Penman of the District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services – have been helping with some pointers on technique.
I spoke with the Canadian women about their first impressions, about 24 hours after they arrived in Abu Dhabi.
“So far, it seems really amazing, the weather is nice, and it’s great that the course is open for practice,” Cartwright said.
“The hotel is beautiful and the hospitality has been amazing. I’m super impressed with the organization, it’s obviously taken a lot of work and they’ve done a great job so far,” Siegfried added.
A lot of work is an understatement; 911 Firefighter Challenge has been building up to this event for the last five years.
What always impresses me when I hang out at these competitions is the level of co-operation among the competitors. I asked Penman what it’s like to work with some of these competitors who are brand new to the sport.
“It’s great because they always underestimate themselves,” she said. “I’m sure they will be able to finish the course. It’s cool, too, to see their level of improvement as we go through a little bit of the training, tweak their techniques a little bit, their confidence shoots up. It’s a good feeling.”
Siegfried added, “It’s great because we all started in that position. I could not hoist to save my life when I first started, so you tell them those little things, and they see you hoist. It’s all in your head, so it’s great to see them improve and work through it.”
Cartwright said it’s fun to interact with people from a different culture.
“Even with the language barrier,” Penman said, “you can see them with the jocularity, bugging each other, laughing and having fun, and we’re having fun with them even though we just met them.”
When I asked about their expectations for the week, the answer, almost in unison, was “to have fun”.
“It’s our off season,” Penman explained, “so we’ve all trained as much as we can, so everyone just wants to do the best that they can for themselves at this point. We haven’t been training for six months, so I just want to do the best that I can on the day.”
Finally, I had to if the money makes a difference.
Cartwright was quick to answer. “No, it’s the opportunity and experience of a lifetime,” she said. “When else are we going to get a chance to go to such a cool place?”
Siegfried agreed. “The money was not what drew me to participate, it was the fact that it was in Abu Dhabi, and when I am ever going to get to see that?”
Penman made it three for three: “It’s such a generous prize, and it has drawn a lot of people, but at the same time I’m trying to look at it as just a huge bonus if I were to leave here with some prize money. But if not, that’s OK. It makes no difference.”
The bulk of the competitors arrive today. I will get some feedback from world FireFit champion Dwayne Drover of Waterloo Fire Rescue, who is here helping 911 with logistics and operations, and who is always in coaching mode with the local competitors. His perspective, as well as his commentary, will be unique.
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at
and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo
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