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New York’s Drill Team Racing

By Kyle Stephens

Photo courtesy of Michael Heller.

When most people hear the word “racing,” the last thing that comes to mind is ladders, hoses, or firefighters. Not so for volunteer firefighters across New York State, who compete in their own type of racing known as “Drill Team Racing” or “Firematics.”

These unique racing competitions have a rich history dating back to the late 19th century. In that time, fire departments would parade throughout communities to recruit new members and also to show off their apparatus, which were often highly decorated with brass and copper.

Competitions, known as “drills,” were often held after these parades to help members train, stay in shape, and to have friendly competition between neighboring fire departments. This led to the organization of the New York State Volunteer Fireman’s Parade and Drill Team Captains Association (NYSVFP & DTCA).

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In those early days, competitions would see firefighters pull a hose cart down a designated track and use these hoses for different competitions. When fire equipment became motorized, the challenge changed.

Now, equipped with their mechanized equipment, firefighters began to compete using ladders and hoses for different events. To win, teams raced the clock to complete these tasks as quickly as possible.

The pursuit of speed furthered the evolution of these races. Today, teams use specially designed racing “trucks” for these competitions.

A normal fire apparatus you would see in any fire station is known as a “Class A” fire truck.

Drill Teams race what are known as  “Class B” and “Class C” trucks, which are only used for training and competition purposes.

A “Class B” truck can be described as a modified pick-up truck with a racing engine and a water pump like you would see in a normal fire truck to pump water.

A “Class C” truck can be described more like a racecar that can carry a hose or a ladder for a competition. Firefighters then ride on the back of these vehicles during different events.

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Almost every weekend throughout the summer months, there is a tournament being held somewhere in New York State, whether it be in western New York, down in Long Island, or somewhere in between.

Most tournaments consist of 8 different events, with the top-5 teams in each event scoring points. The team with the most points at the end of the last event wins the tournament.

Once a year, the New York State tournament is held, rotating annually between different regions of the state. The winner of the tournament — known as “States” — receives a large travelling trophy, designed like the NHL’s Stanley Cup and, of course, bragging rights.

Each tournament typically begins with an event called “3 man ladder,” which consists of 3 people climbing a wooden ladder at the same time. When the last person touches the top of the ladder, the timer is stopped.

Events from there include B and C Ladder, B and C Hose, Efficiency, Motor Pump, and a Bucket Brigade. B and C Ladder are events using the respective fire apparatus to shuttle 4 firefighters and a ladder down a track.

At the end of the track, a firefighter climbs the ladder, stopping the timer when he reaches the top. The B and C hose events also see trucks used to transport four firefighters down the track, only this time a hose is used at the end of the run. One firefighter connects the hose to a hydrant while another connects a nozzle to the hose and trips a target with water, stopping a timer.

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Efficiency is known as a “foot race” and resembles the earliest 19th century competitions. Eight firefighters run down the track, connecting all hoses and a nozzle while running. A target is tripped with water, thus stopping a timer.

The Motor Pump event uses the B Truck to transport 12 firefighters down the track. The pump then pumps water from the hydrant, through the hose, to trip a target 150 feet away.

Lastly comes the bucket brigade. Firefighters fill and pass twelve, 5-gallon buckets of water up a ladder in an attempt to fill a 55-gallon drum. Once the drum is filled to a certain point, a timer is tripped and the clock stops.

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A question that is posed to firefighters that race is, “Why?” Firefighters don’t get paid to compete, there’s no fame, no glory — so why do it? The short answer is that it can be an addiction fueled by the rush of competition.

For most adults who played sports in their youth, once they’re done with college, the majority of competitive sports end for them. Drill Team Racing provides a sport and competition.

Furthermore, there’s a sense of family and comradery associated with not only your team, but with teams throughout the State of New York. Being close with fellow firefighters helps how they work at emergency incidents together and increases their efficiency.

As someone who once raced, the bonds I have created with fellow firefighters are second to none. 

At first glance, none of the equipment you see in Drill Team Racing is like what is used at an actual fire scene. You’re not going to see firefighters racing up to a fire with a racecar or climbing a ladder as fast as they can, however, they are working with tools of their trades. They use ladders, hoses, nozzles, fire hydrants and many other tools.

Using these tools in racing allows firefighters to become more proficient with them for real life scenarios.

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If you happen to be in New York and find yourself looking for something to do on a warm summer Saturday, look up the New York State Drill Team website and see if there happens to be a tournament nearby.

The majority of the fire departments that host a tournament use the events as a fundraiser as well to pay for their efforts to protect their communities.

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