The Firefighter Challenge: ‘The Toughest 2 Minutes in Sports’

Your top questions about this elite event, answered


The Firefighter Challenge has long been considered the proving grounds for elite firefighter athletes, but it was a long road from concept to execution. What started as a test to determine which firefighter candidates would be successful in the profession ultimately transformed into an elite competition spotlighting top firefighter athletes. Competitors go head-to-head in events that simulate firefighting activities, highlighting the rigors of the profession for the general public and proving who has the stamina to be labeled “King of the Jungle,” appropriately sponsored by LION.

In 2021, the Firefighter Challenge celebrates its 30th anniversary of spirited competition. Over the years, countless celebrities and sportscasters have covered more than 500 regional events to highlight fireground movements that push the body to the limit – and there’s no stopping now. The Challenge continues to spotlight new events and push athletes to be their best.

For those fire-rescue athletes interested in the Firefighter Challenge, let’s answer your top questions:

Starting at the base of the tower, competitors race up a flight of stairs carrying a 42-lb. hose pack.
Starting at the base of the tower, competitors race up a flight of stairs carrying a 42-lb. hose pack. (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

What is the Firefighter Challenge?

The Firefighter Challenge is a competitive event, pitting elite firefighter athletes against each other in head-to-head races that simulate the physical demands of real-life firefighting. Wearing full bunker gear and SCBA, pairs of competitors race against each other – and the clock – to complete an arduous course.

What’s the official name?

Firefighter Challenge. If you’re confused, it’s probably because it was known for many years as the Firefighter Combat Challenge. The word “combat” was originally meant to evoke the battle against fire. Organizers officially dropped the “combat” from the name in 2020, shifting this theme to a more fitting home – the Battle Challenge, a head-to-head, military-centric competition.

What is the goal of the Firefighter Challenge?

The Firefighter Challenge promotes and showcases the talents, skills and athleticism of America’s firefighters in an entertaining competition. Further, the Challenge demonstrates the rigors of firefighting to the public. The Challenge has aired on ESPN for nearly three decades, spotlighting the physicality of the firefighting profession.

Who participates in the Firefighter Challenge?

The Challenge features the “best of the best” firefighter athletes. The traveling event attracts hundreds of U.S. and Canadian municipal fire departments at more than 25 locations every year, and is now expanding to countries around the world, including New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. The Challenge has included participants from France, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Kuwait, Poland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Lithuania, Gibraltar, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Australia and Puerto Rico.

What are the activities performed during the Firefighter Challenge?

There are “Five Essential Functions” simulated during the Firefighter Challenge course, each with specific guidelines and rules:

  1. High-Rise Pack Carry: Starting at the base of the tower, competitors race up a flight of stairs carrying a 42-lb. hose pack. Competitors may carry the hose pack in any manner, and hose packs must be put into the container on the top floor of the tower, with no part touching the deck. 
  2. Hose Hoist: Once at the top of the tower, competitors must hoist a 42-lb. donut roll of large diameter hose. Competitors are not allowed to stand on anything other than the top platform while hoisting. The event is complete when the roll clears the railing at the top of the tower and is placed in the container on the top platform floor. Proper placement is on, or in the container with no part of the donut touching the platform deck. Competitors then descend the tower, contacting every step and touching the handrail on the way down.
  3. Forcible Entry: The forcible entry event utilizes the Keiser Force Machine chopping simulator. Using the 9-lb. shot mallet provided and with both feet on the diamond plate surface, competitors must drive the 160 lb. steel beam 5 feet. When complete, competitors dismount the sled and place the hammer on the mat.
  4. Hose Advance: Competitors then negotiate the 140-foot slalom course without missing or knocking over any delineator. Competitors pick up the nozzle end of the charged hoseline and advance it 75 feet through the swinging “saloon door” at the other end of the course. Once through the swinging doors, competitors open the nozzle to strike the target with the water stream, shut down the nozzle and place the hose on the ground.
  5. Victim Rescue: For the final leg of the course, competitors lift and drag a 175-lb. Rescue Randy mannequin backward a distance of 100 feet. The time stops when the competitor and mannequin cross the finish line.
Once at the top of the tower, competitors must hoist a 42-lb. donut roll of large diameter hose.
Once at the top of the tower, competitors must hoist a 42-lb. donut roll of large diameter hose. (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

How did it get the name ‘The Toughest 2 Minutes in Sports’?

This catchphrase was used during the ESPN broadcast in 1993 – and it stuck.

What are the rules?

For a competition this heated, there are a lot of rules. I won’t bore you here will all the fine print, but here are some key points:

  • SCBA: Scott high-pressure breathing apparatus (Air-Pak and facepiece) is provided and must be worn by all participants in the individual/team categories. Competitors may use their own face pieces. Competitors may not modify our equipment including tying knots in the harness straps or removing the nose cone from the facepiece. Competitors must finish the event under 6 minutes and without running out of air.
  • Turnout gear: All competitors must compete in their own protective equipment. PPE (i.e., turnout gear – helmet, coat, pants, gloves and boots) must be serviceable (i.e., without holes), approved for structural firefighting consistent with NFPA 1971 standards in effect at the time of manufacture. Hoods, face shields and earflaps are not required. Articles of turnout gear, SCBA and all other equipment/worn apparel (including eyewear, radios, etc.) must not be removed or lost during the competition. If dropped, they must be retrieved and correctly replaced by the competitor before continuing. Non-retrieval results in disqualification.

You can read the full list of rules here.

Who are the current world record holders?

These are the best of the best firefighter athletes in the individual event categories:

Check out the full list of world records here, including the tandem and relay events.

How can I watch an event?

The Firefighter Challenge travels the country every year. Check out the full schedule of Firefighter Challenge events here to find an event near you.

How can I sign up for a Firefighter Challenge event?

You can register for an individual event on the schedule page.

Do I have to run the entire course myself?

No, there are tandem and relay events where competitors only complete part of the course.

Organizers know that not all firefighters operate at the elite level of many of the individual event Challenge competitors. For reasonably fit firefighters who want to engage in a more team-orientated event, there’s the relay, where each competitor completes one of the Five Essential Functions. Organizers call it, “One-fifth the Work, Five Times the Fun.”

Using the 9-lb. shot mallet provided and with both feet on the diamond plate surface, competitors must drive the 160 lb. steel beam 5 feet. 
Using the 9-lb. shot mallet provided and with both feet on the diamond plate surface, competitors must drive the 160 lb. steel beam 5 feet.  (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

Who operates the Firefighter Challenge?

A dedicated crew of staff, led by Dr. Paul Davis, operates the Firefighter Challenge. Read all about the staff members who make it all happen here.

How did the Firefighter Challenge begin?

In July 1974, Chief David Gratz, director of Fire/Rescue Services in Montgomery County, Maryland, visited the Human Performance Laboratory at the Sports Medicine Center of the University of Maryland. He needed a validated test to determine whether a job applicant had the requisite capabilities to perform the essential job functions of a firefighter.

With U.S. Fire Administration funding, the research design was laid out. It required the cooperation of fire departments in seven Washington, D.C., jurisdictions, each providing a representative sample of firefighters proportionate to its relative size. Ultimately, 100 randomly selected firefighters participated in a battery of fitness tests at the Human Performance Laboratory. The principal investigators of the study were Dr. Charles O. Dotson and Dr. Paul O. Davis.

Competitors pick up the nozzle end of the charged hoseline and advance it 75 feet through the swinging “saloon door” at the other end of the course. 
Competitors pick up the nozzle end of the charged hoseline and advance it 75 feet through the swinging “saloon door” at the other end of the course.  (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

Concurrent with the fitness tests and with the assistance of the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute (MFRI), Dotson and Davis designed a criterion task test (CTT) employing five commonly performed or highly critical fireground evolutions. Each of the 100 firefighters performed the five tasks successively while wearing full protective ensemble (including SCBA) “in the same manner as at the scene of a fire.”

Following testing, the results of the laboratory fitness measures were statistically correlated against the CTT performances. This landmark study demonstrated a high correlation between personal fitness and job performance.

In 1991, while working as an occupational physiologist, Dr. Davis developed the idea that would eventually become the Firefighter Combat Challenge. He had observed the competitive nature of firefighters during the initial testing back in 1976. So, he thought, "Why not devise a competition that would highlight the unique nature of the fire service and showcase the talents and capabilities of firefighters?" The CTT seemed the perfect “vehicle” for the task.

In early 1991, Davis approached the Washington, D.C., Council of Governments to get support for his idea. With the fire chiefs’ approval, he worked with the Fire Training Officer Subcommittee and came up with the rules for the competition.

On May 5, 1991, teams from five departments in the D.C. metropolitan area gathered at MFRI for a Challenge that would become the Firefighter Combat Challenge.

The first Challenge was won by Prince William County, Virginia, in a time of 10:08. Although that was the only event that first year, the seeds of competition had been sown. In 1992, with DuPont as the presenting sponsor, seven competitions and the first truly national championship was held during the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. The Casper (Wyoming) Fire Department took top honors.

By 1993, the Challenge had expanded to 12 events spread across the nation. ESPN initiated its coverage of the Challenge at the National Championship, the first-ever indoor competition. The Championship, held in Dallas during the annual IAFC meeting, was won, again, by Casper.

For the final leg of the course, competitors lift and drag a 175-lb. Rescue Randy mannequin backward a distance of 100 feet.
For the final leg of the course, competitors lift and drag a 175-lb. Rescue Randy mannequin backward a distance of 100 feet. (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

Who sponsors the event?

Firefighter Challenge sponsors include:

  • Lion
  • 3M/Scott Fire & Safety
  • Nasco Healthcare
  • First Responder Institute
  • Snap-Tite
  • RealWheels Corporation (RWC)
  • SKB Case
  • Koehler BrightStar
  • Keiser
  • FDIC
  • ESPN
  • Sunbelt
  • DuPont Kevlar/Nomex
  • Gore CrossTech
  • Motorola Solutions
  • Muertos Coffee Co.

Local host markets also recruit local sponsors to support the Challenge, which truly reflects how regarded these local first responders are and the value this event brings into their community. 

Visit the Firefighter Challenge website for additional details.

Are you ready?
Are you ready? (Photo/Firefighter Challenge)

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.