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Stepping up to the challenge

Six Spokane County District 3 firefighters prepare to climb the 1,311 steps of Seattle’s Columbia Center Tower to battle cancer


John McCallum

Spokane County Fire District 3 firefighter Thom Long mounts the steps in Spokane’s Bank of America building in practice for Sunday’s Scott Firefigther Stair Climb in Seattle.

It’s a challenge.

Ask any of the over 1,500 firefighters signed up for Seattle’s 22nd annual Scott Firefighter Stair Climb Sunday March 10 why they’re willing to don their protective gear and ascend 788 feet virtually straight up the Columbia Center Tower – the second tallest building west of the Mississippi River – and that’s the answer you’ll likely get.

But probably all of them, including the six members of Spokane County Fire District 3 signed up to take part in this year’s climb, will say it’s not only about the challenge to self. It’s also about becoming one with those facing the daily challenges encountered in battling leukemia, lymphoma and a variety of other diseases.

“Cancer affects all of us in some way,” SCFD 3 firefighter Arron Hess said Sunday morning as he and the others prepared to train by climbing the stairwell steps of the Bank of America Building in downtown Spokane.

“Directly,” Thom Long added. “It’s one way to torture your body and raise some money.”

Hess, based out of SCFD Station 31 in Cheney – district headquarters – and Long out of Station 32, Medical Lake/Tyler Road, are joined by Matt Kronvall and Brian Mangis, Station 31, Ben Prescott, Station 310 Williams Lake, and Travis Devine, Station 34 Grove Road. The six will travel to Seattle Saturday, March 9, take part in some of the opening ceremonies and then Sunday, line up outside the Columbia Center for a vertical climb up 69 flights of stairs and 1,311 steps to the tower’s observation deck.

The climb is immensely popular with firefighting departments around the U.S. The online list includes not only departments from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, but Anchorage, Alaska, Denver, Colo., Cody, Wyo. along with units from California, Montana and as far away as New Zealand.

“The event sold out in nine minutes,” Hess said in emphasizing its popularity.

Long said last year, his first, while registering online, just as he was paying his $55 entry fee he was cut off and told registration was closed. He managed to make it in with a little assistance.

“Every year it’s getting tighter and tighter,” he added.

According to the climb’s website, 1,550 firefighters from 290 departments raised $1.2 million at the 2012 climb to help fund blood-cancer research and patient services through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Besides the entry fee, firefighters must raise $150 individually to qualify for the next year’s climb. Together the Fire District 3 group held a spaghetti feed fundraiser, generating over $400, and have been working to get more.

They’ve also been working out to prepare for the rigors of the climb, most of it individually but on several days gathering in downtown Spokane to climb the Bank of America Building’s stairwell, beginning on the second floor and finishing on the 20th.

“We do it about six times to simulate what it will be like,” Kronvall, who will be doing his fifth climb, said.

The climb is essentially a race since individual times are recorded along with team times. Firefighters must wear full structural firefighting gear including boots, pants, coat with liners intact, helmet, gloves and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). All told, Hess said the gear weighs over 70 pounds.

The climb begins on the tower’s third floor, with firefighters given a specific group starting time and heading up every 14 seconds. There are water stop stations about every 10 floors, and on the 40th floor those who need to can pick up a fresh bottle of air for their SCBA from a bottle staging area. Hess said the bottles hold about 4,500 pounds per square inch of oxygen, good enough for 35-40 minutes under normal firefighting conditions.

“Doing what we’re doing, it might be less than 20 minutes,” he said. “It depends on how good a shape you’re in.”

According to the website the average participant finishes in 20-30 minutes, with top competitors doing the climb in 11 minutes. Besides the vertical element, there’s also an environmental one in that having over 1,500 sweating firefighters discharging carbon dioxide in the closed stairwell will raise the temperature significantly, even with a few well placed fans.

“The humidity, guys sweating, the temperature gets to about 95 degrees,” Hess, who’s making his third ascent, said, adding it’s really tough on groups going later in the day – like Devine’s. The first-year climber’s group kicks off at 3:20 p.m., one of the last.

“It simulates a more real, world event that way,” Devine said trying to make the best of it. “Only thing missing is the smoke.”

And while individual training isn’t to be discounted, the practice time in Spokane has proven beneficial, particularly for the other newcomers. Prescott said he’d been doing some running on his own to get in shape, but the first time he put on the SCBA and made the climb, it really gassed him out because there is a delay in the breathing rhythm of the apparatus that you don’t get while running.

Even with all these challenges, all agreed they’d do the climb again, although a couple included a caveat.

“I’ll let you know after,” Devine said.

John McCallum can be reached at


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