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Researcher tackles firefighter back injury

In the research project, firefighters are taught special exercises that strengthen their backs and core muscles. ORACLE PHOTO/RUSSELL NAY

Though some may assume the leading threat of injury for firefighters would be collapsing buildings or exploding cars, what takes most firefighters out of commission is much less climatic.

John Mayer, the chair of USF’s Health Biomechanical and Chiropractic Research, said back injury is the highest cause of early retirement in firefighters.

“It’s not only problematic for the individual firefighter but for the community that they’re expected to protect,” he said.

Mayer received a $1.3 million research grant from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last month. Mayer will launch a research trial involving 2,000 firefighters to expand the specialized physical exercises that can prevent back injury in firefighters.

“We specifically chose this topic because it’s unclear which approach is best to prevent back injuries or back pain in firefighters,” he said. “We think that our work will add to that body of knowledge.”

The current physical regimen of firefighters is also a cause for concern because, while it ensures peak physical fitness, it may not help to prevent back problems in all firefighters.

“It’s not focused, it’s not targeted,” he said. “We believe that this targeted approach can add to the current routines and possibly help standardize the current approaches.” 

Louise Dandridge, Tampa Fire Rescue’s occupational health advisor, said her department was eager to participate in the study because many of the firefighters have retired early from back injury.

“We thought (the study) would be eye-opening for us,” she said. “Anything that will help reduce injury in our firefighters is something that we want to take part in.” 

Dandridge said her men and women suffer back injury from carrying large fire hoses, wearing heavy protective gear, quickly pulling people from burning buildings and lifting victims onto stretchers. 

“A serious back injury can jeopardize future work as a firefighter and devastate their families,” she said. “We want to do everything possible to prevent all injuries and this program is yet another tool available … to return them safely home at the end of a shift.”

During the trial, two of the three groups of firefighters will perform the trial’s specialized exercises, while the third will act as the control group and will not deviate from their existing regime. 

Each of the exercises in this study targets the improvement of functional capacity in firefighters. Instead of coaching the firefighters through lifting heavy objects while maintaining good posture, the research team will focus on strengthening the firefighters’ back and core muscles.

“If a firefighter has to break through a window and help an individual from a fire … they just need to do it,” Mayer said. “They can’t always lift the way they’re supposed to lift. They just don’t have that luxury.”

If the research trial receives positive results, Mayer said, the research team would reach out to departments across the country, and perhaps expand to other civil servants at risk.

“Everybody’s at risk for back pain, not just firefighters, police officers or soldiers,” he said. “The population has a need to look at back pain as well.”