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FireFit Team Profiles

Members of the Fort McMurray Fire Department's competitive FireFit team are headed to the Canadian National Championships in Longueuil, Que., this week. Meet some of the FMFD's FireFit competitors:

Devin Biegel

Look up. Look way up.

It’s no surprise why basketball is Devin Biegel's favourite sport. He's a 25-year-old man who stands six feet three inches and weighs 235 pounds.

Biegel, who hails from Fairview, Alta., has been a Fort McMurray Fire Fighter for four and a half years. He joined FireFit this year with the express purpose of losing weight (down now from 280 pounds).

But as he explains, now, after losing some weight and seeing the potential of the team, his goals have turned more competitive.

Some memebers of the FMFD Firefit team (from left): Ashley Kembel, Abra Hale, Fraser O’Neill, Jalene Cartwright, Brandon Breitkreuz, Tao Liu, Dan Hnatiuk, Corey Ehalt and Devin Biegel.

“This is the first season that I’ve taken FireFit seriously and we started training as a team in early April of this year. I only did one competition last year, and it was a disaster.”

The commitment to FireFit makes him a better fire fighter on the job, he says.

“I find myself less exhausted after climbing flights of stairs on scene, and I can perform more tasks with more efficiency. It also really helps for becoming more comfortable in your gear.”

His best task in the grueling FireFit competition is the dummy drag, “which happens to be my role in our team relay,” he adds.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the task he’s focusing on most prior to the September National competition.

“I’m focusing on that because although my individual time is important to me, it doesn’t touch the importance of the team relay. In the individuals, if I mess up or have a bad run, it’s just me who has a bad day.

“In the relay, we have a really decent team with a shot at doing really well at Nationals. If I have a bad run in the relay, the whole team suffers. It puts a lot of pressure on because I know exactly what my team mates go through on a day-to-day basis to train for these competitions.”

Preparing psychologically for the upcoming Nationals is almost as important as putting in time and effort into physical training, he observes.

“I just focus on the tasks individually in my mind, focusing on all of the techniques we practice so that when the time comes and I’m bagged, my technique doesn’t slip,” he notes. “When your technique suffers, your power and endurance suffer.

“I also tell myself something like, ‘Hey man, you’re going to be soooo tired, but it’s not for long. You just have to push it to the limit for a short time, because if you don’t go to your absolute max, and take breaks during the run, you’re going to kick yourself after!’.”

Attitude isn’t absolutely necessary to win, he continues, but it helps.

“If you go in with the best attitude but you haven’t done any training, you’re gonna have a bad time. That said, attitude is still huge. You have to be mentally strong enough to push yourself to your absolute limit, every time. And if you can do that, odds are you’re still going to be reasonably happy with yourself even if you don't win.”

Sponsorship is a crucial support for the FMFD FireFit team, he continues.

“We are definitely looking for more sponsors (we still don’t have all of the proper props), although we greatly appreciate the ones we have,” he says. “All of the hotels and traveling costs and meals, the time off and competition fees have so far come out of our limited sponsorships or our own pockets.

“It’s a big money commitment, not just of time. So with that said, we always really appreciate people just coming out and cheering. It makes us feel great to know people are getting excited about what we’re working for. And on that note, I just want to say ‘thanks’ to everyone who has showed up at events to root for us up until this point!’

Occasionally, Biegel is not wearing fire fighter gear or training for the next FireFit competition.

Married and busy being a husband, he also loves to read, play guitar, game, snowboard and snowmobile.


Brandon Breitkreuz

Brandon Breitkreuz, 27, comes from a rural Alberta hamlet where new arrivals to the neighbourhood are welcomed with homemade pie, cookies or cake.

Located in central Alberta, Busby boasts of an annual Farmers’ Day celebration, a Wounded Warriors Weekend and the Blue Suede (or, "Elvis") Festival.

With the FMFD for five years, Breitkreuz was an avid athlete in school, where he participated in hockey, soccer, water sports and track and field. He is still an avid athlete since he enjoys mountain biking and snowboarding when he’s not training for or competing in FMFD FireFit competitions.

At five feet 10 inches and weighing 185 pounds, he says he thrives on sport and occupational fitness.

“I wanted to continue an athletic career/activity into my adulthood,” he explains. “The department’s FireFit team was at an initial stage two seasons ago when I joined. I saw an opportunity to get involved in something that’s very exciting. It makes me better at my job, which has kept me motivated as well."

He practices with his teammates between 10 and 12 hours a week and says in preparing for the national FireFit competition in September, he’s focusing on improving what’s called the "hoist and dummy drag." His individual training time each week varies. “It all depends what my body says. Recovery is an important part of fitness training.”

Being a member of the FMFD FireFit Team has helped in his role as a firefighter, Breitkreuz says.

"Physical performance is the main factor of the job," he says. "FireFit training allows us to sustain longer which means ultimately results in a safer and more task-efficient firefighting crew."

As the national competition drew near, Breitkreuz says, he spent his time visualizing wins.

“The week before an event, I really mentally focus in on my race. “I visualize my whole race over and over again and how it should go. By race day, I don’t have much in the way of nerves and fully understand what I need to do. Attitude and mental toughness is particular to whether one will succeed.”


Jalene Cartwright

She hails originally from Victoria, B.C., but this October, Jalene Kara Cartwright will celebrate being a member of the Fort McMurray Fire Department (FMFD) for four years. The 26-year-old stands five feet three inches and says self-improvement is her motivation. She trains on her own a minimum of two hours a day as well as a minimum of two hours every second day with the FireFit team.

By becoming a firefighter, Cartwright says, she became fit and competitive.

“Sporting was never part of my life growing up,” she says. “Actually, I’ve never really been competitive. Then I started working out and training to achieve my goal of becoming a firefighter. Since being with the FMFD, I have developed quite the gym addiction and I have fallen in love with competing in FireFit. My biggest competitor is myself. I love kicking my own butt. I have also competed in the local Strong Man competitions.”

Becoming a FireFit team member has a positive impact on Cartwright's performance as a firefighter.

“FireFit encourages fire fighters to stay in peak physical shape," she says. “Firefighting is a very physical job and at times can be very taxing. The better shape we are in, the better we can perform in those situations. I also feel that it boosts morale, giving us more accomplishments of which we can be proud.”

Last year as Jalene’s first year with FireFit and what attracted her was the thrill of comradery.

“I love the team aspect of it, training together, traveling together and competing both individually and as a team, “she says. “The camaraderie at competitions with other departments is amazing. Even though we are all competing against each other, everyone is friendly, social and always sharing tips on hitting new personal bests. Watching each member of the team improve and hit new times is almost as exciting as hitting your own new personal best.”

She says attitude has everything to do with winning and she has a specific focus when she’s preparing for a competition.

“You need to want it,” she says emphatically. “You need the mental toughness to keep pushing when your whole body burns and wants to quit. In preparing myself psychologically, I try to control the nerve and not vomit! Getting in a good team warm up and watching videos of previous races are good too.”

Cartwright's favourite moments with FMFD FireFit to date have been outside Canada.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to compete in Las Vegas for the 2013 World Championships and in early 2014 to Abu Dhabi, where I placed fourth overall, which was an amazing experience.”

Cartwright does her personal best in the FireFit competitions in the "stairs down" due to what she describes as “quick little feet.”

“Forcible entry has also become a strength for me, although it used to be my weak point,” she adds.

It’s the dummy that’s presenting her with her greatest challenge at this point in her FireFit career.

“Picking up the dummy is what I’m focusing on to improve,” she says. “Once I get him up I’m fast, but I take way too long to pick him up. My hoist needs improvement (too) and I would love to have a faster hose drag.”

She has a few suggestions on how Wood Buffalo can support the FMFD FireFit team.

“The team needs sponsorship,” she explains. Team members take holidays or shift trades to make events. Time away from family can be hard and affordability has previously held some members from attending events. With all the hard work, hours and sacrifices each member makes, it would be nice to have the costs of competing covered.

“We welcome community support, so come watch our local events and check out our schedule on our FMFD FireFit Facebook page.”


Abra Hale

Abra Hale, 32, credits her family for her career choice and her ongoing success as a firefighter with the Fort McMurray Fire Department for nearly five years.

Originally from Williams Lake, B.C., Hale grew up with an athletic mom. Her other inspiration was her stepfather, Stephen McDonald, who has been a firefighter for more than 30 years and who is currently working in the fire service with Cenovus Energy.

“While my stepfather helped to encourage me, I could not have accomplished this dream without the love and support of my family — namely my mother and husband,” says Hale.

Married to Steven Hale for two years and together now for nine years, Hale refers to her husband as her “super, supportive rock.” Together, they love to fish, camp, off-road and travel. In addition, Hale practices Yoga, walks their two dogs and likes to relax with her husband and a good movie.

Hale signed up for FireFit in April this year because, she explains, “my coworker and teammate, Jalene (Cartwright), was extremely persuasive and persistent. And I can’t thank her enough for getting me involved with such an amazing group of people. I enjoy every painstaking and grueling moment with them.”

Prior to the National Firefit Competition in Quebec, Hale was focusing on improving her individual best times.

“My individual best time is 3:42, with a lot of room for improvement. I took third place in the Syncrude Open House event in Fort McMurray in June with this time.”

She says FireFit aids her performance as a firefighter.

“It increases your ability to push through the lactic acid build up that occurs on most, if not all, fire incidents and it increases your endurance, cardio and strength,” she says. “It’s also a team-building sport. Every aspect of firefighting relies on members being strong team players.”

Bettering herself is what truly motivates Abra. “I always want to have a smoother handoff or faster event in my relay and NXGW and I always want forward progress in my individual run. Because this is my first year in FireFit, consistent and forward progression in my events is very obtainable.”

The team element factors hugely in the competitions, she explains.

“I am still new to this sport and I mentally prepare for each event individually (but) I laugh and joke with the other FireFit members about our levels of anxiety. It’s relaxing to know that everyone on the team feels it before a run. From seasoned vet too rookie, we all get amped up before we run.”

Abra says she loved sports growing up and dabbled in many, but seldom stuck to just one. However, she trained in ITF Tae Kwon Do for many years, which is probably how she manages to train for so many hours weekly for FireFit.

“Our FireFit coach, Fraser (O'Neill), books us for six hours per week for training, but it’s usually closer to nine or 12 hours,” she says, adding, “He’s sneaky like that.” In addition to the nine or 12 hours she’s scheduled to train, Hale spends an additional six to 10 hours a week training on her own.

It pays off.

“I have a fairly impressive Kaiser (that’s the forcible entry machine),” she notes. “It’s also my favorite task. I’m focusing on the stairs and the hose hoisting combo for improvement. The amount of lactic acid that builds up during that combo is painful to overcome.”

“I love the NXG2 and the relay the most. Those two events really bring all of the team aspects together. But I’m really looking forward to our female relay team breaking the two-minute mark in Quebec in September! Our best time so far is 2:01.”

Like her stepfather before her, Hale encourages young people in high school to consider a career as a firefighter.

“It’s one of the most rewarding careers there is,” she says. “Being a firefighter is essentially a 24/7 job though. You need to be committed, not only to your department, but to your community. After all, that’s truly who you work for. Shift work is only half the job and the other half is charity work and community involvement, both of which are fantastic.”


Mark Howdle

Mark Howdle, 32, joined the Fort McMurray Fire Department’s (FMFD) FireFit Team last year.

Tongue in cheek, he says he joined “to be a beast like (team lead) Fraser O’Neill."

"Truly, to accomplish something that is difficult and hard and to challenge myself to achieve higher goals,” he says

Originally from Red Deer, Howdle says he joined the FMFD due to its “great integrated service,” adding that his most thrilling moment to date on the FireFit Team occurred when the team qualified for the final day at Nationals in Edmonton and then competed.

Howdle admires perseverance and demands it of himself.

“(My hero), despite the controversy, is Lance Armstrong. This man battled! His mental strength was inspiring. Cancer, media, pain, pelotons, failure, and still had the most fierce and winning spirit. Not to mention he has raised more money than anyone for cancer.”

Aligned with that viewpoint is his admiration for Muhammad Ali, and while Howdle says almost any Muhammad Ali Quote would be a favourite, he chose the one that reads:

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that is when it really counts.”

“It’s the same with FireFit,” Howdle adds. “The only way to beat your time is to push harder than you did last time when it started hurting. My performance goal is to beat the 1:40 mark and receive my sub 1:40 pin and earn a spot on the Firehall 5 wall. Only six people have received the sub 1:40 pin so far.”

A family man, he says he benefits today from the lessons he learned growing up in a “big, happy family.”

“I grew up with two brothers and a sister. We played sports everyday outside. It was great for learning and bonding. My parents taught me to persevere, work hard, values and morals and my siblings taught me how to have fun, learn, be positive and have confidence.”

Howdle travels the trails of Fort McMurray with his son and tunes into Netflix for relaxing enjoyment. His son is also one of his main motivators.

“He loves watching the FireFit competitions and I really like to do well for him to have something to cheer about. Maybe even set the bar high for him to beat someday!”

Standing six feet tall and weighing 199 pounds, Howdle would make an impression with a high school graduating class if he were to speak on a career as a firefighter. What advice would he give them?

“Develop your skills as a person in as many areas as possible, whether they be hard or soft skills. Never stop learning. Never think you know everything.”


Dan Hnatiuk

Dan Hnatiuk’s career choice aligns with the value his family places on professions serving others.

His mom and one sister are both nurses, his grandfather served as a volunteer firefighter for years, his sister is a paramedic and his brother-in-law is a police officer. All of them influenced and guided Hnatiuk, 26, to pursue his career as a firefighter.

Originally from Red Deer, Hnatiuk joined the Fort McMurray fire department last year. As a recreational hockey player and snowboarder who stands six feet two inches, wears size 13 shoes and weighs 230 pounds, he is quite capable of performing the arduous and strenuous tasks at a fire scene.

A newbie, Hnatiuk joined FireFit this year and considers the relay team's first-place finish at a competition in Medicine Hat to be his most thrilling experience with FireFit so far. He also loves the excitement generated by the relays.

“I played hockey, soccer, basketball and anything else I could in school and I missed playing competitive sports," he says. "I love how FireFit gets the juices flowing again while being in a team atmosphere.”

Hnatiuk identifies fellow team member Tao Liu as his hero “because he is a ninja.” And, along with Liu, trains with the team around six hours a week, which supplements the two hours of training he does each day.

“I want to do the best I can in both the team and individual competitions,” he adds. “And I need that sub 1:40 pin.”

In preparing psychologically for the Nationals, Hnatiuk also practices Yoga.

“I just try to not work myself up too much. If I make myself too nervous, I won’t be able to think straight … Yoga helps me to relax and it doesn’t hurt to be more flexible.”


Ashely Kembel

It’s Ashley Kembel’s second year with the Fort McMurray FireFit Team and her fourth year as an FMFD firefighter.

At 28, she is a seasoned professional who says a lot of the senior firefighters she works with are her greatest inspiration (as is her boyfriend, who is also a firefighter).

Growing up in Red Deer with an older brother and a younger sister, athletics and sports were a way for Kembel to unwind.

“My parents always had us in some sort of physical activity, whether it was swimming or soccer in the summer or dancing and gymnastics in the winter," she says. "I played soccer, volleyball and basketball and loved them all. And then, of course, there were always family outings such as biking and hiking.”

Kembel says she signed up for FireFit because she likes a challenge.

“It’s such a competitive sport and everyone is so encouraging and willing to help each other train and share techniques. It’s great sportsmanship and so challenging for me.”

She doesn’t cite a particular competition or event when she describes her most thrilling moment to date with FireFit.

“It’s always thrilling when you beat your personal best time,” says Kembel. “And it's even more rewarding when I compare how far I’ve come since I started.”

In order to relax when a competition is looming, Kembel goes into the trails, running with her dog, or “just being around good friends.”

When asked whether attitude has everything to do with winning, Kembel changes the verb from winning to sportsmanship.

“Sportsmanship leads to winning,” she notes. “Never let a win get to your head or a loss get to your heart. There is always someone that is going to be better than you and there is always room for improvement.”

Kembel says she would emphasize the principle of serving others if she were asked to speak to a high school class about a career as a firefighter.

“You must have the desire to serve others and have the willingness to take the risk to save someone else,” she explains. “Fire fighters must possess stamina, endurance and strength so if you enjoy physical activity and staying fit, firefighting is a great career choice."

“Firefighting offers camaraderie as we depend on each other to perform a job. So if you enjoy being a team player and working together toward a common goal and living a healthy lifestyle and building lifelong relationships within the department, then firefighting is an occupation to consider.”


Tao Liu

Ice cream is a huge part of his weekly menu, so dieting is out of the question for this 195-pound, six-foot-on firefighter.

Tao Liu, 31, is originally from Yan Tai (or Yantai), China, located in the northeast province of Shandong and recognized in 2004 as the most "Charming City of China."

With the FMFD for almost three years, Liu says he chose Fort McMurray because of its integrated services. And he chose to sign up for FireFit last year to not only improve himself, but also because “it suits my competitive personality.”

Like his teammates, he spends approximately 10 hours a week training as one of the team and, on his own, he devotes between 20 to 25 hours per week to physical fitness and improving his "dummy drag" time.

Liu says the highlights of his FireFit experience to date was taking the gold medal in the NXG2 event and defeating last year’s national champions in June this year, and, of course, winning the Team Relay Gold Medal as well.

FireFit improves Liu’s performance on the job, too."

“Superior physical condition equals superior performance,” he says.

It seems as though Liu would seldom be found in a mood for R&R.

He does enjoy fishing as a hobby, but his response when asked what he does to relax is: “Life is too short ... no time to relax, always pushing yourself.”

Liu’s comment is in keeping with what he would say to a high school graduate considering a career as a firefighter: “Study harder, harder and some more, then you’ll be able to get a good job!”


Fraser O'Neill

Fraser O’Neill exudes enthusiasm on the subject of FireFit and the Fort McMurray Fire Department’s (FMFD) FireFit team.

O’Neill is the natural fit as the FireFit team lead.

A few years ago, he and Geoff Pyke (who joined CNRL in 2013) met with Jody Butz, the Acting Deputy Chief of the FMFD, to express their interest in starting a FireFit team. In addition to Pyke and O’Neill, the team members included Michael Broderick and Brent Wagner. Butz’ response was that if the four could establish a working team, the FMFD would do as much as possible to help in their success.

“Pyke and I co-managed the FireFit team’s growth until he left in 2013,” Fraser explains. “We got hired by the FMFD together. He’s one of my best friends.”

Today, O’Neill leads the team and views his role as a way of giving back what he has received and valued from others in his own growth and career development. Other team members will also vouch that Fraser’s goals in running the FireFit team transcends physical fitness and career development. They will attest that in establishing Fort McMurray as a national powerhouse, Fraser’s intentions are also to add a new and exciting reason to attract and retain members for the Fort McMurray Fire Department.

“Over the years I’ve had really good leaders and mentors, like my football coaches--people that have inspired me and helped me grow as a person,” O’Neill says. “I try to guide the FireFit team, but I want input from everyone. We all take initiative and we each have a sense of ownership when the team triumphs.”

Fast forward to today’s active FireFit Competition team, which includes Fraser, Tao Liu, Devin Biegel, Brandon Breitkreuz, Dan Hnatiuk, Jalene Cartright, Abra Hale and Ashley Kembel. They are the eight FireFit team members who will travel to Montreal in September to compete in the National FireFit Competition. But during 2014, the FMFD FireFit team comprised 12 men and women competing in preparation for the official FireFit Competition.

The current FireFit competitive team members also include: Mark Howdle, Derrick Appelt, Kyle Beckley, Corey Ehalt and Drew Boeckx, although these members unfortunately will not be competing in Montreal.

While bringing out the best in his fellow FireFit team-mates, Fraser keeps his eyes peeled for new talent.

“A big thing is the new guys and gals coming in,” he says. “That’s my big source of talent. I like building up depth. I’d like to build two teams to take to the National competition down the road.”