On May 5, hundreds of firefighters from across North America and the world will climb the stairs of Calgary’s Bow Tower, one of Western Canada’s tallest buildings, in support of firefighters and citizens living with cancer. They will climb 775 vertical feet –  1,204 steps –  in full duty gear that in itself can weigh up to 60 lbs.

As they have since the beginning, members of the Cochrane Fire Service will be among those taking the1,204 steps in support of Wellspring Calgary, a nonprofit agency that offers support and services to those living with cancer.

Derek Orr, president of the Cochrane Firefighters Assoc. (IAFF Local 4819), says they've never had fewer than four participate since the challenge was launched in 2015 and this year they anticipate eight members will take the challenge.

If Mayor Jeff Genung has his way, that number will rise to nine and is currently receiving train from the local firefighters. He's set a $20,000 fundraising goal to be one of the 10 non-firefighters in the Challenge the Chief category that requires him to raise a minimum of $10,000.

While the financial goal is daunting, the training entailed has been regimented and constant since January. Twice weekly at 6:30 a.m., the mayor and Cochrane CAO Dave Devana have been reporting to the fire hall's hose tower to participate with firefighters in training for the steps ahead. They've also been undertaking other training.

Orr says they appreciate having the mayor and CAO join the cause. 

"Having the town CEO and mayor training with us in the tower is a big deal for us," says Orr.

The feeling is mutual. About seven weeks into their training, Genung and Devana say they've gained a whole new perspective of what firefighters endure.

"We’re scrapping to get to the top," says Genung. "That’s where the work begins for these guys."

During each session, they climb and descend the stairs 20 times. The hose tower is equivalent to about four storeys of stairs and is commonly used by the fire service for training.

The pair initiated their training wearing regular athletic wear. This month, they started to add regulation firefighting gear. Soon they'll be training with the self-breathing apparatus that adds another 35 to 40 lbs. of weight. In full gear, right down to the boots, it means wearing and carrying an additional 60 lbs and movement becomes much more restrictive than in gym gear.

Devana won't be doing the May 5 stairway challenge but he's fully engaged by participating in the training.

"The first time I came out it was really, really difficult. I was getting better and then I put all the gear on and then it got worse," he says.

"It’s a lot hotter with the all the gear on. It makes it more difficult, for sure." 

Mayor Genung is a long-time iron man triathlon competitor. He's had to set that aside since becoming mayor but training for this event is a whole new experience.

"This is different," he says. "There's no comparison."

Orr has done the challenge for many years and was last year's president's cup winner with the top time of 13:15 by 480 participating firefighters.

Asked if he looks forward to the challenge each year the answer comes quickly with a smirk.

"No way."

But he goes on to compare it to undertaking other physical endurance challenges like triathlons.

"After you're finished, you say you’ll never do it again. Then you wake up the next morning thinking, 'Alright, let’s start training for next year."

Each participant has their own reason for taking the challenge, says Orr. Many do it to show their support for those who are fighting cancer. There are 17 presumptive cancers recognized as occupational hazards of the firefighter's job and some members of the Cochrane Fire Service have been inflicted with cancer. Some have utilized the services of Wellspring. 

Each participating firefighter must raise a minimum of $200 to participate and here in Cochrane they've set a goal of raising $500 each, says Orr.

The Firefighter Stairwell Challenge was inspired by Seattle's Scott Firefighter Stairwell Challenge. Last year 480 firefighters and six civilians took the challenge from BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Texas, and Norway and raised $238,500

Wellspring Calgary was established in 2007 to provide a comprehensive range of support, resources and programs so anyone living with cancer and the people who care about them can improve the quality of their lives. The nonprofit agency receives no government or agency core funding and relies on events and donations. Its staff is supplemented in its daily operation by more than 180 volunteers who annually donated 12,000 hours to help Wellspring run smoothly.

To make a financial contribution in support of the mayor or any of the local firefighters participating in the challenge, visit https://calgarystairclimb.com.