TYLER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - Canadian firefighters Darren van Zandbergen, Shaun Henderson and Dave Walker rolled into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport late Friday and quickly got a taste of life in the Lone Star State.
"We got some barbecue and some beans," Henderson, representing Oakville Fire Department, said. "It was really good. I like the people here, the food, the country music … the camaraderie among Texas firefighters is second to none."
The trio, part of a group of six traveling to Tyler from Canada, was among more than 200 participants in this week's Brookshire's Firefighter Combat Challenge.
The spirited regional competition, held Friday and Saturday as an offshoot of the Scott Combat Challenge, showcases the various challenges firefighters can encounter on the job.
Individual competitions began Friday and resumed Saturday with team competitions.
Saturday's meet began with a special greeting from Mayor Barbara Bass, plus a T-6G flyover and special tribute to longtime supporter, the late Tony Myers, in the south parking lot of Broadway Square Mall, 4601 S. Broadway Ave.
Organizers seemed pleased with the overall two-day turnout, estimated at roughly 2,000.
"I'd say it's going to be the regional event of the year," event organizer and Tyler firefighter Brent Hail said. "We probably have 200 competitors."
Tyler signed a three-year contract to hold two regional meets before the nationals in 2014, Hail said.
Participating firefighters said they like the venue and Texas hospitality.
"It's awesome," Walker said. "People are really nice — there are good people all around."
"This is closer to the world competition and gives us a feel for the course," van Zandbergen said. "It also gives us a chance to get the cobwebs out."
The competition attracted participants from Texas and its neighboring states.
"We come every year," Larry Brandon, a firefighter from Sand Springs, Okla., said. "It's the biggest regional event of the year and within driving distance. The venue is awesome, the hotel is close and there's also a mall."
Tulsa Fire Capt. Matt Tavaglione said he likes the competitive aspects of the contest.
He was on track Friday to beat his personal best of 1 minute, 39 seconds when he hit a snag, finishing in 1 minute, 47 seconds.
"You've just got to keep in mind, this is all for fun," he said with a grin. "Our job is serious enough. The goal here is to have some fun."
An offshoot to the competition was a children's course, featuring pint-sized gear so little firefighters could get their own a taste of the action.
Little Rashad Warren, 5, seemed mesmerized by the experiences unfolding around him.
His dad is Lindale firefighter, Marlos Warren.
The boy's mother, Ashante Warren, was among a small group of family members cheering on their favorite firefighter.
"It's exciting," Mrs. Warren said. "I've been watching them practice. You hope that they will beat the other agencies, but it's a lot of fun to watch them compete."
Local officials said the family friendly Combat Challenge competition is a popular draw.
"This is every kid's dream," Kim Morris, of Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. "Firefighters are every kid's idol — the chance to go out and see them in action and see the fire trucks and everything … it's such a great thing."
Tyler has hosted one of 30 stops on the challenge's national tour for the past six years, Ms. Morris said, noting the city is gaining popularity and turnout.
Shari Rickman, Convention and Visitors Bureau general manager, expects an economic impact between $300,000 and $400,000.
A portion of the proceeds benefit Carter BloodCare and Be The Match, an organization that helps provide marrow transplants.
"This event gives the community a change to come out and support our local firefighters," she said.
Sponsors include Brookshire's Grocery Company, East Texas Medical Center-EMS, Southside Bank, The Genecov Group, Inc., Briarwood Group, LTD, R.W. Fair Foundation No. 2, Fire-Teck, LLC, Mobile Communications Services/ David L. English, Byron Meads-Merrill Lynch, Jose Cruz Perez, City of Tyler, Texas Bank and Trust, Threlkeld & Co. Insurance, Siddons-Martin Emergency Group, LLC, Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce Motel Tax Fund, Austin Bank Cumberland Park-Richard Solomon, Tyler Lodging Association, Advocare-Clint Dark, Clairmont Nursing Home, Colonial Manor Nursing Home, ET Fasteners, XTC Fitness & Sports and Jersey Mike's.