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