Local firefighter wins top female honors in state competitions

Every time Heidi Charest lugs 75 pounds of hose up five flights of stairs or races against the clock to drag a 175-pound dummy more than 100 feet backward, she asks herself the same question:

"Why am I doing this? It hurts so much."

Then she quickly remembers why it's worthwhile.

"It's the challenge of it that I love. It's exhilarating."

Though she's only been competing for a little more than a year, the 29-year-old Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District firefighter has become one of the state's best female competitors at the Firefighter Combat Challenge. The event consists of five tasks -- including lugging the 75-pound hose bundle up a five-story tower -- that must be performed in sequence while wearing full protective gear, including a 25-pound oxygen tank.

For Charest, the road to competition started in a class for aspiring emergency medical technicians at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in early 2008. Having just moved with her husband, Richard, a Marine stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the Massachusetts native was looking for a new job.

"I had a part-time job that wasn't giving me that many hours so I decided to look into becoming a volunteer firefighter," Charest said. "I took an EMT class at TCL, and I met some of the guys from this department."

For a couple of years before her arrival to the Lowcountry, Charest had competed in a number of fitness competitions that earned her some acclaim in fitness circles.

"I brought in some of the magazines I was in, and they told me that I should join their department as a volunteer and be on their combat challenge team," she said. "So I joined, and we just starting practicing. I loved it."

Charest was a quick study.

With less than six months of training, Charest competed for the first time at the S.C. Firefighters Association's annual convention in Myrtle Beach in July 2008 and finished third. She followed that performance with a first-place finish at this year's convention and joined Holly Nourisat of the St. Johns Fire Department to win the tandem division of the Women's Firefighter Challenge.

Charest's hard work has also made her a valuable member of the Lady's Island-St. Helena department, said Fire Chief Bruce Kline.

"From her time at the academy where she won the "Pride of the Battalion" award for her leadership potential, through the numerous nationally recognized combat challenge awards ... she is, without doubt, a deeply dedicated professional, and her personal character is above reproach," he said.

"Heidi is the definition of a firefighter."

Trophies and recognition aside, Charest said training for the event has made her a better firefighter.

"It keeps me physically fit all year round," she said. "My air pack lasts longer because my lung capacity is higher. It's the physical challenge of it that keeps me coming back for more. It's the hardest thing I've ever done."