It was a few minutes past 8 a.m. last Sunday and quiet on Cal Poly’s campus when four Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County firefighters pulled their trucks into a parking garage and put on protective pants, coats and boots.
Paid-call firefighters Andy Carlin, Nathan Haydon and Thomas Scott, and Training Battalion Chief Eric Shalhoob hoisted heavy, oxygen-filled bottles onto their backs, adjusted their face masks and grabbed their helmets.
Then they headed for the stairs.
Six flights up, one quick elevator ride down. Repeat 15 times.
In all, the firefighters marched up 1,350 stairs, their steps slowing the farther they climbed, their faces growing hot, their breathing labored but steady.
On Sunday, they’ll do it all over again – but this time, they’ll join about 1,900 other firefighters to climb the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle, the second tallest building west of the Mississippi, with 69 flights and 1,311 steps.
The 24th annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb benefits The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Last year’s climb raised $1.97 million and drew 1,800 firefighters from more than 300 departments, according to the event website.
Carlin heard about the event after a Templeton firefighter completed the climb last year and organized a team of 10 county firefighters from Station 12 in San Luis Obispo.
The other members of their team, SLO County Fire Co. 12, are Andrew Abercromby, Dillon Campbell, Lucas Coleman, Art Filice, Pat Larsen and Nick Phillips. Filice is a fire engineer; the rest are paid-call firefighters, who are paid for each call to which they respond. Some are students, have full-time jobs or are seasonal firefighters.
So far, they’ve collectively raised $7,550 (each participant must raise at least $300 in pledges). In addition to fundraising, each firefighter expects to spend about $750 to cover travel costs; the team is also accepting donations to offset those costs.
The team has “adopted” some local families affected by leukemia or lymphoma, including children, teens and adults. Some are in treatment, others are in remission, a few have died.
“To have the firefighters do this is just incredibly touching. It makes kids like Ellie feel so special,” said Danya Nunley, whose 11-year-old daughter, Eliana, is a leukemia survivor. She was diagnosed in 2005 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and withstood two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy.
“The amount of time and hours and energy that they’ve put in voluntarily for other people’s families is really mind-blowing,” Nunley added. “It means the world to us and it means better care and support systems down the road for others affected by the disease.”
Shauna Ames’ 2-year-old daughter, Maysie, is in the middle of a treatment program for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When the firefighters met recently with some of the children, Maysie bonded with a few of them.
“She liked this one fireman and he held her the whole time,” Ames said. “I don’t know their backgrounds, or why they chose this, but I think it’s awesome. You don’t know how to thank them enough.”
Before Sunday’s event, the firefighters will tuck a list of names of those affected by the disease in their jacket pockets, and when they start to tire and hurt they’ll reach for it to recall why they’re climbing. Carlin said anyone who wants a name of someone affected by leukemia or lymphoma added to the list should email him by Saturday afternoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When we start sucking air, we just tap the list,” said Carlin, who lost an uncle to acute myeloid leukemia.
Added Haydon: “I think we’re all in agreement that it’s a short amount of pain for us when they’re living with it every day.”
On this particular training day, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Phill Veneris had accompanied the team of firefighters to Cal Poly. His job: to call the elevator back up to the sixth floor once the firefighters had taken it down, so they wouldn’t have time to recover between climbs.
Veneris also tracked how many sets of stairs each firefighter had completed, so when they got tired and lost count, he could remind them.
“How many?” Carlin hollered at one point as he clomped up the stairs.
“Twelve,” Veneris answered.
“Almost there!” Carlin replied, and then entered the elevator, where the other firefighters were bent over at the waist, hands resting on their knees.
After the firefighters finished, they rested for a few minutes in the sunshine on the top floor of the parking garage.
Carlin said when they heard about the climb, their first thought was to go climb the Columbia Center “because it’s there, and kick some butt.
“But now we’ve realized that it’s way bigger than us,” he said.