Firefighters take competition one step at a time

About 20 local firefighters are getting ready for the largest firefighter competition in the world.

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Firefighters go up and down the staircase at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center as they train for a March 6 competition.

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A firefighter scales the staircase at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center while training for the 20th annual Scott Fire Fighter Stair Climb in Seattle on March 6.

Below watch video of area firefighters training at the Marcus Whitman Hotel.

WALLA WALLA - If you happen to take the stairs at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center and encounter a huffing, puffing firefighter in full turnout gear heading up the stairs, don't panic. The building isn't on fire.

The firefighter is likely one of about 20 local firefighters getting ready for the largest firefighter competition in the world - the 20th annual Scott Fire Fighter Stair Climb in Seattle on March 6. The event draws over 1,500 participants from across the country and helps to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Participants will put on more than 60 pounds of firefighter gear and climb 69 flights of stairs, or 1,311 steps, in the second tallest building west of the Mississippi.

Otis Garbe, a volunteer firefighter with Walla Walla Fire District 6 (Touchet) might be one you see practicing at the Marcus Whitman.

Garbe began getting in shape for the timed race Dec. 1.

"It dang near killed me the first week I started getting in shape," he said.

The 47-year-old farmer and Florida Power & Light worker has been running the hotel stairs every other day, adding more weight as he gets stronger - and lighter. He's now 15 pounds lighter, he said.

Partly as the result of pressure from his insurance company, Garbe has combined his fitness efforts with better eating habits.

"It's been a help to me all the way around," he said.

Garbe is the only District 6 representative, but he is often joined by colleagues from Walla Walla City Fire Department and Walla Walla County Fire District 4. Others participating in the stair climb from this area include Cimmaron Perkins of Columbia County Fire District 3 and College Place Fire Department firefighter Rob Snell.

The Marcus Whitman has 10 floors, and Garbe makes eight tripsup and down each session.

Although the climb is timed, it's not a run, Garbe said. "It's just a very fast-paced walk."

The hotel has been very supportive, Garbe said. "When we walk in with our turnouts they just smile and wish us luck," he said.

Phil Tonn, a firefighter from the Walla Walla County District 4 fire station, is another one of the local firefighters participating. He said the event is incredibly challenging and requires a lot of practice.

"This is an extremely hard challenge that completely exhausts competitors. Physical fitness is a crucial part of being a firefighter and this event is a great challenge for us," said Tonn.

In the competition, firefighters will wear full turnout gear, including air tanks. Firefighters will change out their oxygen tanks on the 40th floor, Garbe said.

The competition is for fire departments and individuals. On the day of the event, all 1,500 firefighters climb the stairs, with a new firefighter starting to climb every 15 seconds. Each firefighter has a chip that records his or her personal time.

"Firefighters are required to wear all gear that we fight fire in including air packs and breathing air from them. The gear is around 60-70 pounds of non-heat-dissipating weight," said Tonn.

Participating Area firefighters

Walla Walla Fire District 6: Otis Garbe.

Columbia County Fire District 3: Cimmaron Perkins.

College Place Fire Department: Rob Snell.

Walla Walla Fire Department: Shawn Ongers, Raul Marroquin, Anthony Spada, Paul Enline, Jeff Harwood and Javin Berg.

Walla Walla Fire District 4:Phil Tonn, Lance Groom, Tania Nelson, Lacy Ammons, Alma Gallardo, Todd Wright, Brook Brown, Emilee Hendrickson, Travis Slater and Matthew Shuster.

To contribute

Firefighters are not only challenging their physical limits with the climb, but are raising money for leukemia and lymphoma research.

Those wishing to pledge a donation to the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society in their favorite firefighter’s name can do so by going to firefighterstairclimb.org. Click on the "donate now" button and from there search for an individual or team.

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