For anyone who ever has to call Fairfax County Fire and Rescue in an emergency, here's a reassuring thought: Under those helmets, masks and all that heavy protective gear are some world-class athletes.

A team of five Fairfax County firefighters recently placed sixth in the United States--and ninth in the world--in the grueling Firefighter Combat Challenge, an annual competition that tests the physical skills, strength and endurance needed to battle blazes and rescue victims.

Wearing breathing apparatus and "full bunker gear" that protects the firefighter from head to toe, all five members of the Fairfax men's team completed the arduous obstacle course in less than two minutes. Two female firefighters and one man over 50 also competed as individuals in separate categories. The competition this year was held Nov. 3-6 in Las Vegas.

The five-event course, a sort of firefighter's pentathlon against the clock, consists of running up the stairs of a five-story tower with a 44-pound load of fire hose, hoisting a 45-pound "doughnut roll" of hose to the top of the tower with a rope, using a mallet to drive a 160-pound steel beam five feet across the ground to demonstrate "forcible entry," carrying a charged hose 75 feet and hitting a target with the water stream, and dragging a 175-pound dummy 100 feet to simulate rescuing a "victim." All this while wearing equipment that weighs more than 50 pounds. By contrast, pro football players wear about 12 pounds of gear.

"The challenge seeks to encourage firefighter fitness and demonstrate the profession's rigors to the public," said Paul O. Davis, a former University of Maryland professor and physical fitness expert who founded the event in 1991. "Unlike sports that exist solely for entertainment value, the challenge is about performing one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs better and safer."

First held at the University of Maryland, the combat challenge originally was conceived as a fitness evaluation for firefighters. But the whole concept ran into strong opposition from unions, which saw it as a potential pretext for fire chiefs to get rid of employees arbitrarily. The problem was resolved when Davis agreed to make the competition strictly a sporting event. It is now managed privately by his Burtonsville company, On-Target Communications, and is broadcast annually by ESPN. The network plans to show videotape of the Las Vegas championship on Dec. 26.

Of the five Fairfax men's challenge team members, three also belong to the county's renowned urban search and rescue team, which has been deployed to such countries as Turkey, Taiwan and Kenya to help extricate people from buildings destroyed by earthquakes and terrorist bombs. One, Joe Knerr, was sent to Turkey right after the competition to join the federally funded team in rescue efforts following the latest earthquake in that country.

Knerr, 27, who is assigned to a fire station in Woodlawn, said the combat challenge keeps him "focused on being physically fit, and that in turn helps me on my job." Training for the competition "helps me to perform when the time comes, because physically I'm in better shape than if I weren't doing this," he said.

"Our training never stops," said Rodney Vaughan, 27, another member of the combat challenge team who joined the urban search and rescue unit in July. He finished second among the Fairfax County participants and 39th overall in the world firefighters' championship. During the four-day competition, 98 teams and 550 individuals participated in qualifying events leading up to the finals. Twenty teams and 124 individuals survived to compete on the final day.

The individual winner in Las Vegas was Bob Russell, a firefighter from Overland Park, Kan., who completed the five-event course in a new world record time of 1 minute 25 seconds. Sam Gray, of Centreville, was the fastest Fairfax County competitor, and 10th overall, with a time of 1:34.

Other members of the team included Jerome Williams, who works at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy, and John McDonell, a firefighter in Lorton. Williams ran in a cross-country race this summer in Stockholm as part of an international competition for police and firefighters, and McDonell is a nationally ranked rugby player. Larry Collier, 52, a captain who lives in Prince William County and works in Falls Church, competed for the first time in the over-50 category. He is a veteran long-distance runner who has raced in the Boston, New York and Marine Corps marathons.

Also competing for the first time in the women's category were Colleen Wuckovich, a firefighter in Mount Vernon, and Stacie Lawton, a member of the Merrifield station.

"We're all athletes," said Vaughan, who joined the department four years ago and is assigned to Merrifield. He and the other team members typically train eight to 10 hours a week on their own time, running up stairs and weightlifting to get ready for the challenge "season," which lasts from April to November. The participants also must take leave to compete and pay their expenses themselves or by recruiting sponsors.

Up next for the team, Vaughan said, is a competition in February to raise money for cystic fibrosis, a stair-climbing race up 30 floors of the USA Today building in Arlington. Competing against the Fairfax firefighters in previous races have been other fire departments, triathletes, track teams and marathon runners.

"We usually win every event," Vaughan said.

CAPTION: Fairfax County firefighter Rodney Vaughan, left, and driver Sam Gray hoist 45-pound hoses up three stories.

CAPTION: Fairfax firefighter Colleen Wuckovich uses a mallet to drive a 160-pound beam--part of the Firefighter Combat Challenge.

CAPTION: Driver Sam Gray hefts a 175-pound dummy out of harm's way. The Fairfax County men's team placed sixth nationally.

CAPTION: Firefighter John McDonell hits a target after running a zig-zag obstacle course.