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April 2017

Going the distance

Company: City of Bend Fire Department

Workforce: 153, including volunteers

Training grant: Injury Prevention through Biomechanical Resilience Training

Benefits: The goals of the training are reduced time-loss injuries, a healthier work force, productive careers, and long, happy, and pain-free retirements

Bend Fire Department rescue training

The City of Bend Fire Department is gearing up to implement a training project – funded by a $30,710 grant awarded by Oregon OSHA – that will reduce injuries and claims costs among firefighters by improving the efficiency of their physical movements. By helping keep firefighters free of injury and on the job, the project also aims to strengthen protection of the community.

At issue are biomechanics: the interconnectedness of how our bodies work. Firefighters perform a range of tasks, often in awkward positions, that can be broken down into discrete and predictable movements. When firefighters use poor biomechanics to perform a task, their biomechanical chains are vulnerable to injury.

Yet, these movements can be identified, quantified, and measured against an ideal biomechanical model. Simple exercise training (10 minutes per day) by a physical therapist can result in a stronger biomechanical chain within a few weeks.

Under the training project, the physical therapist will observe – and potentially participate in – firefighter drills. In this way, the physical therapist will pinpoint the 10 to 12 basic movements used by firefighters to complete tasks. Based on this process, the physical therapist will prescribe remedial stretches and exercises to improve poor biomechanics.

There are other phases of the project. One is to have the physical therapist regularly available to address nagging aches and pains before they turn into serious injuries. Another is to have the physical therapist examine fire equipment – and how it's handled – in hopes of preventing injuries.

The training project manager is Engineer Scott Seaton. The grant manager is Battalion Chief Dave Howe. They elaborated on the project in an interview with Resource.

Functional movement exercises observed by physical therapist

City of Bend firefighters are participating in a training program aimed at improving the efficiency of their physical movements.

Scott Seaton, training project manager

Scott Seaton, training project manager

Dave Howe, Battallion Chief

Dave Howe, Battallion Chief

What prompted the Bend Fire Department to pursue this training project?

A discussion with our SAIF representative disclosed that the city spent well over $400,000 on claims costs in a five-year period, and this did not include overtime to fill time-loss injury positions. In addition, since firefighters have several days off between shifts and they are generally very active, we have experienced a high number of off-duty injuries, further driving overtime costs and forcing us to do without valuable employees. We felt that with a scientific approach and a structured therapy-based program, we could not only cut these costs and time-loss injuries, but also we could empower our employees to develop a stronger biomechanical foundation for all their lives' activities.

What have you learned from the project so far?

We have discovered that Oregon OSHA has a strong interest in an innovative approach to employee safety and health. This project has so far been better received than we anticipated, and there is a strong interest throughout the department in making this a leading-edge program in Oregon and across the nation.

How will you measure the project's success?

The goals of the program are reduced time-loss injuries, a healthier workforce, and, ultimately, productive careers followed by long, happy, and pain-free retirements. An obvious key to this is that the troops have to buy in, but once they realize that the goals are about making their lives better, the process will lend itself to buy-in.

In addition, it is likely that other city departments will be interested in an expansion of this idea to their personnel, and we have spoken with a neighboring fire department that is very interested in the concept. In the future, we may be able to export this concept to other fields of endeavor.

How does this project fit into the overall history and context of your department's focus on the safety and health of firefighters?

Fire departments have become more and more invested in safety, first by virtue of the work we do, secondly because statutes have mandated an emphasis on worker safety, and finally because we have come to place our employees first, recognizing them to be our most valued resource.

We are certainly not alone in intentionally evolving a stronger, broader, and deeper attitude toward safety. Essentially, we wish our employees to be strong, healthy, and effective, with a minimum of time loss for injury (or illness) over their careers, and for them to stride purposefully and without pain as they pass through the door to retirement.

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