Twenty-eight teams from around the world descended on Coachman Park last week for the 15th annual World Rescue Challenge.
CLEARWATER – For five days last week, parts of downtown Clearwater resembled a disaster area, and it wasn’t due to road construction or the ongoing renovations of the Capitol Theater.
The organized chaos was part of an international event called the World Rescue Challenge, where specialized fire and rescue teams from around the world compete in simulated vehicle emergency scenarios designed to both train and educate the competitors.
The fact that the prestigious event was being held at Coachman Park is a big boon for the city; now in its 15th year, this is the first time the challenge has ever been held in the United States.
“Clearwater hosted WRC qualifying events in 2006 and 2007, so everyone was familiar with the layout of the area,” Dan Zinge, president of the North American Vehicle Rescue Association, said.
“We put in our bid to host the event, and because we could provide the necessary logistics – venue, hotel rooms, transportation, location – we were selected for this year.”
Zinge, a 29-year veteran of the Palm Harbor Fire and Rescue Department who founded NAVRA in 2008, said his team put on a global marketing campaign touting the benefits of the area with a slogan of “Come Early, Stay Late.”
The pitch worked.
Twenty-eight teams from 23 different countries were represented at the challenge, and Zinge said to a man, all he heard was universal praise for the area.
“The event has exceeded our expectations,” he said on Friday, the fourth day of the challenge. “We’ve had Chamber of Commerce weather, and people from around the world have said they can’t believe we get to live and work in paradise.”
Despite the scenic location, it’s not all sun and fun while the event is taking place.
The teams, comprised of six members, compete in three main scenarios: 10-minute rapid response; 20-minute limited response and 30-minute complex response situations.
The setups created scenes of emergency personnel scurrying around fire trucks and crashed cars, all set against a backdrop of sunny skies and calm waters, with the Clearwater Pass Bridge serving as a focal point for the surreal juxtaposition of trauma amid tranquility.
But to Clearwater Fire Chief Ken Watts, the twisted metal and manufactured smoke were beautiful sights to see in his city.
“We’re just ecstatic to host this prestigious event,” Watts said. “It might not be as exciting to the layperson as it is to us, but this is a phenomenal honor for the city.”
Watts praised the efforts of city officials who helped bring the World Rescue Challenge to Clearwater and area fire rescue departments who assisted with the event.
And he echoed Zinge’s statements regarding comments he heard all week long.
“There are so many different countries here, and they are telling us how much they love it here,” he said. “They travel all over the world, and they have truly been impressed with the hospitality they have received.”
The success of this year’s event has led to the possibility of Clearwater hosting the World Rescue Challenge again, possibly in the very near future, according to Zinge.
Next year’s host, Scotland, had to withdraw its application, creating an unexpected opening in the schedule.
It’s a chance Zinge said he doesn’t plan to pass up.
“We had already put in a bid to host the event again, so we’ll speak with the city and organizers and see if we could get it next year,” he said.
“It’s never been held in the same place twice,” he added, “but everybody has been so impressed with the overall operation this year, I think we have a great shot to host it again.”