Firefighters participate in prehab

Everyone knows what physical rehabilitation is. But the Wilton Fire Department has put an interesting twist on it: the department has its own prehabilitation program.

Prehabilitation, according to Chief Ronald Kanterman, is the regular participation in exercises designed to prepare a firefighter for the physical challenges of the job, so that when they do become injured, their downtime and recovery time and costs are less.

These exercises include getting down into a crawl and dragging a heavy sandbag across the floor to simulate a human body, repeatedly lifting a heavy medicine ball overhead and slamming it onto the floor as hard as possible, to build muscular endurance, and shaking a couple of heavy ropes to simulate handling fire hoses.

The firefighters perform their workout routines each day they work, in the fire headquarters gym.

The department has a line item in next year’s budget for about $10,000 to cover the costs of a combined physical trainer and nutrition instructor, Kanterman said.

The program, in its 14th year, is an example of the ways the department spends its budget money.

“It was 2004 maybe when the money came through, a grant for over $100,000 from the federal American Fire Act Firefighters grant, that allowed us to buy commercial grade equipment,” said Lt. Jeff Locher, who is the department’s wellness coordinator.  “Before that we had second hand weights and maybe an old treadmill someone donated. We didn’t have a designated space to exercise.”

The initial grant allowed the department to build and equip it’s own gym room, which includes rubber flooring and a variety of exercise equipment like balancing ball pads.

“The little things matter when we exercise, it’ not just pushing and pulling weights,” Locher said. “You have to have a range of motion, an awareness of where your body is. It’ muscular endurance, it’s cardiovascular fitness.”

Before the prehab program, many firefighters were familiar with high school football and wrestling team type weight training exercises, such as the bench press. But they may have had weak shoulder rotation,  tight hips, and unconditioned cores that led to more back and shoulder injuries. Now they train their bodies to compliment the actual work of a firefighter, which can include dragging and carrying people across floors and down ladders.

“It’s a  lot more than moving weight. It’s flexibility and the ability to move. It’s really a symbiotic process of strength, flexibility and coordination,” Locher said.

The trainer and nutritionist is Sarah Beckert, who visits twice a week. She even teaches them Yoga exercises. “Imagine macho firefighters doing Yoga,” joked Kanterman. “It humbles you quick.”

But it pays off, in core flexibility and strength.

“If a guy gets hurt, his recovery time is quicker. That’s why it’s called prehab,” Kanterman said.

The leading cause of death for firefighters is heart attack, Kanterman said. The leading injuries are strains and sprains. Locher said that is because firefighters are loaded down with turnout gear and the tools they use, which can be an additional 150 pounds over bodyweight. They go from inactivity to hyper activity in seconds.

The regular exercises and focus on nutrition help the firefighters stay healthy.

“When this started, the department as a whole was more deconditioned. We didn’t have guys as in shape as they are now,” Locher said. “When we initially started, we were using pin loaded weight machines. Now because fitness has improved, we’re doing pull ups, plyometric stuff.”

The department has 24 firefighters. The median  age is mid 40s. “As you get older, you have to work out,” Kanterman said. “They realize, I could be that guy that drops dead of cardiac arrest.”

The firefighters also exercise on their days off. Many participate in spin classes, or go out running.

“The current buzzword for us is occupational athlete,” Kanterman said. “Unlike football, when game day is Sunday, we never know when our gameday is. We have to be in peak physical performance shape to be able to do this job.”