Tyler firefighters will compete against the best firefighters in the nation this week during the Brookshire's 2014 National Firefighter Combat Challenge.

The competition, which is free to the public, is scheduled for today through Saturday at Broadway Square Mall, 4601 S. Broadway Ave., in the parking lot near Sears. Activities begin at 2 p.m. today and Friday, and at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Firefighter and competitor Brent Hail said it's an honor to have nationals in Tyler this year.

"This is a big deal, as this is the national finals and instead of running two days, we will have people here for three days competing. This is the last stage before the World Challenge in Phoenix," Hail told the Tyler Morning Telegraph earlier this month.

An estimated 400 competitors, along with more spectators than in recent years, are expected, according to a Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau news release.

Members of the Tyler Firefighter Combat Challenge "Over 40" Team are Hail, Jeff Barnett, Brandon Davis, Terry Hawkins and Randy Lee, while Jeremy Driver, Jeff Hudgens, Brian Boyd, Cody Fisher and Patrick Mayo make up Tyler's open class team. Back in September, the former group, which was recognized at Wednesday's Tyler City Council meeting, won first place in the "Over 40" Relay Race at the regional competition in Arlington. The team won by 4/100ths of a second.

During the national event, firefighters compete by carrying a 40-pound fire hose up four stories, hoisting a roll of fire hose up 40 feet, running down four flights of stairs, pounding a heavy sled with a sledgehammer, running a serpentine course, pulling a fully-charged fire hose and then dragging a 180-pound dummy.

On Tuesday, the "Over 40" team practiced at the city's fire training grounds.

"We all keep a level of fitness so we can run because the guys we run against, some of them are really good," Hail said shortly before the team did a run-through.

And he said age is not always a factor. For instance, he recalled a 45-year-old man who did the combat challenge in 1 minute, 24 seconds by himself.

"We're all fit enough. It's just coming out here and practicing because there's more to it than just coming out here and just running. (There are) a lot of different techniques you can use. With five guys, you have hand offs, which make a big difference," Hail said.

"We've been trying to hit (1 minute, 25 seconds). We'll see what happens," he added.

Hail said overall doing the combat challenge is incredibly difficult.

"Guys on YouTube, they're the exception," he said. "They're extremely fast. They're in great shape. They can run it fast."

Barnett agreed, saying, "It's a lot of training, a lot of training on our time off. And the guys make it look easy. It's not as easy as it looks."

Hail said preparing for a regional event is different than the national or world challenge.

"You're going against guys that are extremely good," he said. "It's not a ‘Go practice for two weeks and … go run,' it's a ‘we'll prepare for three or four months and go run.'" So it's not just a real quick thing you can do. It takes dedication, it takes motivation because it's hard when you're three months out from a competition to train for something like that."

But he said receiving a medal makes it all worth it in the end.

Still, Hail said it does add pressure that nationals is in Tyler this year.

"It always does when it's in your hometown," he said. "When you go somewhere else and lose, it (isn't) as bad as when you lose in your hometown. (But there are) a lot of fast guys. … It's not something to be ashamed of. On any given day, we could win, they could win."

This is the fourth year for Barnett to participate in an "Over 40" relay team, and he said he takes pleasure in the camaraderie.

"I enjoy coming out, working out with the guys. It's a lot of fun," he said.

Barnett added, "This is our life. This is what we do every day. So we come out here and just do it for fun, too."

Hawkins has been doing the firefighter combat challenge for more than 20 years. He has competed in an individual category, as well as a relay category, and prefers the relay.

He said, overall, the training helps firefighters do their job.

"Everything is fire-ground related, so if we can train for this and get better at this it's just going to do nothing but help us on our job," he said.

Barnett said winning first place at the regional event in Arlington provides confidence going into nationals.

"It feels good when you win first place, no matter where it's at. It builds your confidence when you get first place," he said.

And Hawkins said he also is happy that the team was able to get first place at the regional event.

"We were very pleased with our performance there. It still showed us some areas that we can improve, but we feel like we're headed in the right direction and getting faster," he said.

"Looking forward to a good (national) event. Hopefully a lot of people will come out to watch."

Aside from the competition, the Tyler Firefighters Cancer Awareness Relief Effort (C.A.R.E.) is set to sell T-shirts at nationals, according to a news release, and on Friday, the Van Zandt County Humane Society is set to host a dog adoption at the event.

For more information, visit brookshirescombat.com.

Staff Writer Kenneth Dean contributed to this story.

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