Keeping it Personal: Fire Districts Focus on Employee Wellness to Prevent Injuries

Employers of all types are starting to embrace and integrate comprehensive wellness programs, and for good reason. Wellness programs have been shown to impart many positive results, including decreased absenteeism, lower healthcare costs, and fewer medical claims while simultaneously increasing employee productivity, morale and retention.

While these programs are good for any type of business, they are especially beneficial to firefighting operations. Over the past three decades, heart attacks have been the leading cause of death among firefighters. One third of all firefighters are injured in the line of duty, and their incidence of injury is nearly five times greater than that of workers from private industries. Forty-nine percent of all injury retirements incurred by firefighters are solely because of back injuries.

An effective wellness program is a powerful tool in addressing these issues and improving outcomes for all uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. Studies have proven physical activity has numerous benefits in maintaining optimal health, decreasing anxiety and depression, enhancing feelings of well-being, and improving work performance.

West Metro Fire Protection District has seen the power of such a program in action. The department began its mandatory annual fitness testing and wellness programs over 17 years ago, and has since seen dramatic improvements among their ranks.

When their program was first implemented, more than a quarter of West Metro’s firefighters fell below the minimum aerobic capacity standard, and nearly 10 percent also failed the Physical Ability Test. Within just 10 years of their wellness program’s implementation, all of their 318 firefighters passed both tests.

It’s not just physical fitness that’s improved, either. The department takes a holistic approach, placing an emphasis on stress management, providing nutritional advice, and launching their own in-house recovery program to rehabilitate firefighters after an injury has occurred.

“Instead of sending our employees out to receive an hour of care once or twice a week, we have them work out in our own facilities for 10-12 minutes at a time every hour throughout the work day,” said Bob Stratman, West Metro’s Wellness and Workers’ Compensation Manager.

The results certainly speak for themselves, as West Metro has consistently been able to beat the industry-standard recovery times for a variety of common injuries. For example, the industry standard to recover from a hip replacement (if the injured worker is able to return to work at all) is 12 to 15 months. West Metro’s program was able to reduce that recovery period to just three months. The industry standard recovery period for ACL/MCL knee injuries is nine months, but West Metro’s program has workers back in just three to four months.

The secret for West Metro has been in hiring trainers with sports medicine backgrounds and aligning their department with physical therapy clinics that are used to working with athletes whose goal is to get back to work and return to peak performance as quickly as possible.

“In most businesses, injured employees often aren’t in a big hurry to get back to work,” said Stratman. “Our culture here is very different, and we’re proud of the success we’ve had in getting our firefighters recovered and returned to work quickly.”

The district has also designed workouts tailored to fit any employee’s schedule. Regardless of whether they’re working three, four, or five day shifts, West Metro provides a workout plan to match. The exercise plans consist of four phases, which employees progress through via a video series that was created through federal grant funding. All 400 of the district’s employees have access to this training, whether or not they actually fight fires.

Durango Fire Protection District is another organization that has a highly successful, inclusive program. All of their employees–from the firefighters to the finance directors and human resources professionals–go through their annual Standard Fitness Testing program. Following the Cooper Institute’s First Responders Physical Fitness Assessment guidelines, the test measures five different elements of fitness: cardiorespiratory fitness, flexibility, dynamic strength, absolute strength, and body composition.

Durango FPD’s Operations Chief Hal Doughty says it doesn’t matter that some of these employees aren’t on the frontlines. “Every one of us can do our part to keep our workers’ compensation and healthcare costs low,” said Doughty.

In addition to the functional abilities tests, Durango FPD’s in-house occupational therapist annually examines their employees’ fitness and wellness from a medical standpoint. This program has paid off, detecting some potentially fatal conditions at a very early stage.

Not only does the district facilitate physical abilities testing and routine medical examinations, but also provides several avenues for seeking help with other issues. Employees of Durango FPD and their families have access to counseling services to address everything from financial trouble, marital or relationship issues, problems with substance abuse, and help with quitting smoking.

This can lead to an overall reduction in stress for the firefighters and those around them. This means enormous cost reductions for their workers’ compensation and healthcare coverages.

“We realized that in order to give our people the best opportunity to be truly healthy, we’ve got to look at the whole person,” said Doughty. “While an employee may be physically strong, we realize that there are many other things that could potentially create a weak link.”

Doughty says that above all, Durango FPD’s main goal is to help improve the lives of their employees now and in the future.

“Not only do we want the benefits of a healthier workforce now, but we want our employees to continue to lead the happiest, healthiest lives possible once they retire,” said Doughty.

The fire protection districts of West Metro and Durango are proof that there is much more to fitness for duty testing than just having firefighters haul ladders and move hose lines around an obstacle course. By extending their programs to all of their employees and taking a comprehensive, holistic approach, these districts have created model programs that benefit everyone involved.

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