FEMA grant to USF aims to prevent back injuries in firefighters

USF has been awarded more than $700,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to study the effectiveness of targeted exercises for preventing back injuries in local firefighters, a leading injury affecting fire and rescue workers nationwide.

John Mayer, DC, PhD, holder of the Lincoln College Endowed Chair in Biomechanical and Chiropractic Research at USF and associate professor in the USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, is principal investigator for the study.

“Low back injury is one of the most common, costly, and disabling conditions in firefighters and first responders. Costs for managing low back injury and associated chronic pain are up to $600 billion a year in the United States,” Dr. Mayer said.

Dr. John Mayer will lead the study.

As of May 14, 2010, USF was the only site of six in Florida to receive a research and prevention award under the 2009 Fire Prevention and Safety Grants from FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Dr. Mayer will work with the City of Tampa Fire Rescue to measure the effectiveness of therapeutic exercises for preventing back injuries in Tampa’s firefighters. The specific aim of the two-year study, he said, is to implement and test the effectiveness of a targeted back exercise program in firefighters serving at Tampa Fire-Rescue. USF personnel and certified peer fitness trainers from Tampa Fire Rescue will administer supervised exercise interventions at several fire stations for six months.

Assessments (including core muscle strength and endurance tests on specialized equipment, Bod Pod™ body composition, high-resolution ultrasound imaging of the spinal muscles, and patient reported outcome measures) will be conducted at the USF Human Functional Performance Laboratory at the USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“If this study successfully achieves its aims, the targeted exercise protocol will improve the function of the back musculature of firefighters so that they can more effectively and safely carry out their duties to protect the community’s citizens,” Dr. Mayer said.

In addition to Dr. Mayer, the interdisciplinary research team for this project includes William S. Quillen, PT, PhD; Shirley Groer, PhD; and Paul Lunseth, MD, of USF; Joe Verna, DC, of the Spine & Sport Foundation; and Louise Dandridge, RN, COHN-S/CM, of Tampa Fire Rescue.

“We are delighted to engage in this partnership in support of our Tampa Bay community’s first responders,” said Dr. Quillen, associate dean of the USF College of Medicine, and professor and director of the USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Dr. Mayer joined USF in 2007 to fill the Lincoln College Endowed Chair in Biomechanical and Chiropractic Research, and to help launch a core research program in spinal musculoskeletal disorders intended to strengthen USF Health’s major initiative in sports safety. Before joining USF, Dr. Mayer directed research for the Spine & Sport Foundation, a non-profit research and education organization, and was an adjunct research faculty member at San Diego State University.

Dr. Mayer has dedicated the past 15 years to developing and testing exercise strategies for the prevention and treatment of low back injuries. He previously served on a research team that designed and implemented a comprehensive wellness and fitness program for firefighters through a FEMA-funded grant, which provided the pilot work for the current study.

The Fire Prevention and Safety Grants (FP&S) are part of the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG), and are under the purview of the Grant Programs Directorate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The competitive FP&S Grants support projects that enhance the safety of the public and firefighters from fire and related hazards. The primary goal is to target high-risk populations and reduce injury and prevent death. In 2005, Congress reauthorized funding for FP&S and expanded the eligible uses of funds to include Firefighter Safety Research and Development.

Story by Sarah A. Worth and photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications