An in­no­va­tive pro­gram is treat­ing fire­fight­ers like pro ath­letes to get them back to work

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

Den­ver Fire Capt. Steven Holtz stretched across a treat­ment ta­ble at the Rocky Moun­tain Fire Acad­emy as a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist wrapped a thick, red rub­ber band around his arm and be­gan pulling Holtz’s arm over his head and back down.

The phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, Casey Stoneberger, worked to ex­tend Holtz’s range of mo­tion as he re­cov­ers from surgery to re­pair a torn ro­ta­tor cuff and bi­ceps ten­don.

“They wear oxy­gen bot­tles and they have to be able to reach re­ally far be­hind their backs to turn that on,” Stoneberger said.

Un­til he can do that, Holtz will stay on desk duty — some­thing he al­ready has grown tired of.

But those who run the Den­ver Fire De­part­ment’s new health and well­ness pro­gram, which bor­rows its phi­los­o­phy and ex­er­cise rou­tines from pro­fes­sional sports, hope they can help him climb back onto a firetruck much faster.

In the first year, the de­part­ment re­ported that its work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion claims from overex­er­tion — the most fre­quent cause of in­jury in the pro­fes­sion — dropped, as did the cost of treat­ing in­juries to lower backs, shoul­ders and knees.

The to­tal cost for treat­ing work­ers’ comp in­juries to pri­mary body parts ad­dressed by the pro­gram dropped 42 per­cent to $253,184 in the first year, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics pro­vided by the de­part­ment.

“We’re be­ing re­ally ag­gres­sive,” said Lt. Shawn Brooks, the health and well­ness co­or­di­na­tor for the Den­ver Fire De­part­ment. “What I want to do is treat all of our fire­fight­ers like pro­fes­sional ath­letes. How do pro ath­letes get back in the game so fast af­ter an in­jury? They do ther­apy every day.”

The fire de­part­ment started its well­ness pro­gram two years af­ter run­ning a pi­lot project with the goal of pre­vent­ing in­juries and then help­ing fire­fight­ers heal faster when they do get hurt. The well­ness pro­gram cov­ers fit­ness and be­hav­ioral health and is run by Brooks and two phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, who are fire de­part­ment em­ploy­ees.

Now, other de­part­ments in Den­ver city govern­ment, in­clud­ing the Den­ver Po­lice De­part­ment, are in­ter­ested in adapt­ing sim­i­lar pro­grams for their work­ers.

The fire de­part­ment’s phys­i­cal ther­a­pists see about 230 peo­ple a month, Brooks said. Some­times, fire­fight­ers drop by af­ter a shift to ask for ther­apy or spe­cific ex­er­cises for an in­jury suf­fered that day.

“We have peo­ple come in here and say, ‘Can you help me out?’ ” Brooks said. “And they go home feel­ing bet­ter.”

On a re­cent Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Holtz was get­ting his shoul­der stretched while another fire­fighter was get­ting a lower back mas­sage.

Holtz tore his ro­ta­tor cuff and bi­ceps ten­don in July while climb­ing onto a fire en­gine. He had surgery in Oc­to­ber and needs six months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion be­fore he can go back to work.

“I slipped and tried to catch my­self and I heard ev­ery­thing pop,” Holtz said.

The well­ness pro­gram is for ev­ery­one in the fire de­part­ment, and re­cruits are in­tro­duced to it on their first day at the acad­emy.

Brooks and his staff screen every re­cruit through seven func­tional move­ment tests — all de­vel­oped for the NFL and now widely used through­out sports. The move­ment tests in­volve lunges, squats, steps and reaches that mea­sure co­or­di­na­tion, flex­i­bil­ity and mo­tor con­trol needed on the job.

The tests have been adapted for fire­fight­ers who climb on trucks, carry heavy equip­ment on their backs and pull wa­ter-filled hoses that can weigh hun­dreds of pounds to­ward build­ings, Brooks said.

Vet­eran fire­fight­ers are tested on it, too. The well­ness staff also teaches fire­fight­ers the cor­rect tech­niques for lift­ing, pulling and mov­ing.

“Ev­ery­thing we do is awk­ward,” Brooks said. “It’s awk­ward to move a body, move a lad­der, move a hose. We have to do those awk­ward things cor­rectly.”

The fo­cus on fit­ness and well­ness im­proves morale, he said.

“One of the most trau­matic things that can hap­pen to a fire­fighter is in­jury,” Brooks said. “Now, there’s a plan. It’s a whole change in the way they feel about be­ing in­jured.”

Den­ver Fire De­part­ment Capt. Steven Holtz works out as Casey Stoneberger, di­rec­tor of phys­i­cal ther­apy, looks on. Holtz is re­cov­er­ing from ro­ta­tor cuff surgery stem­ming from an in­jury sus­tained in the line of duty. Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

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