A test of his training: McKeesport firefighter competing in Combat Challenge at Cotton Bowl

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McKeesport firefighter Chris Cerci says lives can depend on the level of physical fitness and training he brings to his job.

"Those factors determine whether I survive or whether my partners or someone else stays alive," he said.

Mr. Cerci will test his firefighting and rescue skills at a national competition today that is part of the Cotton Bowl festivities in Arlington, Texas. He qualified to take part in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge "Lion Invitational" for his performance in the Scott World Challenge XXII event in October. He took third place in the over-45 division at that competition in Las Vegas.

Scott Safety, a maker of equipment for firefighters, sponsors an annual series of more than 30 "combat challenges" around the country.

Mr. Cerci has been a firefighter in McKeesport for 15 years. He also works part time for departments in Peters and Swissvale.

During today's timed competition in Texas he will have to complete a variety of tasks linked to situations he and his colleagues might face when battling blazes. Those challenges include carrying an equipment pack to the top of a five-story high-rise building, dragging a water-filled hose 75 feet, pulling a 175-pound mannequin backward for 106 feet and completing a 140-foot slalom course.

He and the other competitors must complete all tasks while wearing a full uniform, including a coat, helmet, pants, gloves and boots. As they would in a real fire, each participant also wears a self-contained breathing apparatus to provide a safe source of oxygen.

Mr. Cerci, who has been competing in such events since 2001, is being sponsored at the Lion Invitational by Draeger Safety Inc. Draeger Safety is the Robinson-based unit of a German company that makes safety equipment for firefighting, mining and the chemical, oil and gas industries.

In addition to his appearance today at AT&T Stadium before the Missouri-Oklahoma State game, Mr. Cerci will compete next month at the Firefighter Throwdown in San Diego, Calif.

McKeesport Deputy Fire Chief Vince Wassel described Mr. Cerci as "a very intense individual who keeps himself in tip-top shape."

Mr. Cerci said taking part in events like the Lion Invitational also reflects his competitive instincts, which date back to his boyhood days playing Little League baseball.

He said he has learned that doing well in firefighter challenges requires that he keep himself in good shape and offers the satisfaction that comes from winning.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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