Competition brings out the best in Sunshine State firefighters and explorers

Estero Fire Rescue Explorers Nick Bestrom and Matt Pratico aim the nozzle to knock down a target in the Running Hose event.

Photo by LAURA GATES // Buy this photo

Estero Fire Rescue Explorers Nick Bestrom and Matt Pratico aim the nozzle to knock down a target in the Running Hose event.

— Young people exploring a career in firefighting took on professional firefighters from across the state Saturday in the Florida State Firefighters’ Association 84th annual Firematics Championship.

The all-day event in the parking lot of Bass Pro Shops featured timed drills designed to test skills used in active firefighting.

The Estero Fire Rescue Explorers, which includes young adults ages 14 to 20 who are interested in firefighting, joined other Explorer groups to put their training to the test. Explorers regularly compete in Firematics competitions, but this is the only event which pits them against professionals.

“It’s fun for the firefighters to come out and compete against each other, and it’s a good way to showcase their skills to the public,” explained Bob Amick, Firefighters Association manager. “All the drills are relating to everyday training and skills needed in active firefighting.”

In the dry hose event, teams were required to roll fire hoses tight enough to squeeze through slots on a storage rack. Several competitors had to stop and repack a hose to make the fit.

“It’s all about speed and the guy who can do it the fastest with precision,” Amick said.

In the running hose event, firefighters raced to assemble the water supply line, delivering a powerful blast to topple a target.

LeHigh Acres firefighter Cory Heller returned to his former Estero Explorers club to help in the state competition. A 2008 Cypress Lake graduate, Heller said his days as an Explorer gave him experience in the basics of firefighting.

“I think it builds a lot of practical confidence with hoses and how to hook them up,” he said. As an Explorer, Heller set a record at the Explorers’ largest competition in Gatlinburg, Tenn., by squeezing through a confined space of less than six inches.

Estero firefighter Clint Skelton was the first graduate of the Estero Explorers program. He now uses his Explorer training to mentor other young adults in the program. Saturday’s Firematics competition was the first Skelton participated in as a professional. He credits the Explorers program for confirming his career choice.

“I didn’t have to waste time in fire school,” he said. “I already knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Estero Division Chief Todd Coulter heads up the Explorers program. “It keeps me involved in all the basics we learned in fire school,” he said.

About 150 young adults have been through the Estero program in the last seven years, with 10 becoming professional firefighters, he said. Many teens join Explorers just for the fun of it. The group becomes like family, building teamwork and traveling to several competitions throughout the year.

“I love everything about it!” said Lt. Josh Althouse, a 2011 South Fort Myers graduate.

At the end of the day, the two Estero Explorers teams ranked fifth and eighth out of nine teams competing. Top honors went to a professional firefighters team from Plantation.

The day also included a kid-friendly “Fire Fighter Training Show,” where children dressed up as firefighters, extinguished a faux fire and rescued an inflatable victim from a “smoke” filled building.

The State Firefighters’ Association plans to hold its annual Firematics competition at the Gulf Coast Town Center Bass Pro for the next three years.

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