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When Tacoma physical therapist Chad McCann sees a firefighter, he sees a professional athlete. The comparison is a valid one, he said, based on the stress a firefighter puts his or her body coupled with the urgency that exists to stay healthy and “in the field.”
The critical need to keep local firefighters healthy and effective is why 3Dimensional Physical Therapy & Sports Conditioning recently joined forces with Tactical Athlete Performance Health Institute (TAPHI), establishing the clinic as a preferred provider of physical therapy services for firefighters from the Central Pierce and East Pierce fire departments.
“Firefighter injuries are a matter of when not if,” said McCann, a physical therapist with 3Dimensional Physical Therapy & Sports Conditioning based in Tacoma. “It can be back pain that is ignored until it becomes a real problem, or it can be a sudden event such as a tear in the rotator cuff. Either way, the firefighter is out of commission, costing departments money spent on overtime that could be better spent on equipment and training.”
As part of the collaboration with TAPHI, 3Dimensional joins local physicians and physical therapists from one other clinic. They work together to ensure injured firefighters from the Central and East Pierce districts will get immediate care from local health care professionals who have been specifically trained to treat firefighters.
Based in Milwaukee, Wis., TAPHI is a program that focuses on treating “occupation athletes,” such as firefighters, like professional sports athletes. It integrates wellness and injury prevention into fitness and training programs, improving injury care and reducing time spent in case management. The advantages of such an approach are twofold, McCann said.
“First, we’re building a team approach to a special audience with specific needs,” he said. “As a result, we’ll be learning more and more about firefighting practices and physical performance issues. Secondly, the firefighters will be learning injury prevention and performance strengthening techniques from us that they can share and reinforce with each other.”
McCann recently joined 3Dimensional owner and physical therapist Paul Drumheller at the Central Pierce firefighter training grounds. There they joined TAPHI trainers to become “firefighters for a day” as part of their TAPHI training – an experience McCann described as “eye-opening.”
“While we’ve treated firefighters for years, this gave us a better hands-on understanding of their jobs,” he said. “Moving heavy equipment, wrangling water hoses that are stronger than you are, carrying heavy loads up and down ladders. It’s just a matter of time before a firefighter starts having back pain and/or shoulder problems.”
While firefighters obviously train for the physical demands, it’s not always possible to maintain best practices. The work requires them to put themselves in risky positions, McCann said, making it hard to train for all scenarios.
“Understanding better how injuries occur and understanding how badly firefighters want to return to their jobs means having medical and rehabilitation systems focused on more timely care and more specific treatments,” said McCann. “This approach meets those needs.”