Rolling Meadows firefighter Andre Hall led one of the most popular stations at the recent "Firefighter for a Day" training program. Holding hydraulic rescue tools, he showed these would-be firefighters how to extricate a victim from a car.
Beyond the technical know-how, Hall spoke about the dangers firefighters face, firsthand. As the result of an emergency response, Hall suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of work for one year.
Turns out, the participants at the training session were all medical professionals, including physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons, who spent a day walking in the shoes of their patients.
Wearing complete firefighting gear -- including turnout pants and jacket, helmet, boots and a 25-pound breathing apparatus -- they crawled through simulations of burning buildings, advanced hose lines into a heated fire environment, and even learned how to transport a victim from a second-floor fire.
Working alongside of them were firefighters from Hanover Park, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Northbrook, Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows. The daylong session took place at the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy in Glenview and was organized by the Rolling Meadows Fire Department.
"It's a lot harder than I thought," said Dr. Bryant Ho of Hinsdale Orthopedics. "I didn't expect to encounter some of these obstacles. Working under these conditions just puts a lot more strain on their bodies than other professions."
Casey Russell, a physical therapist with ATI Physical Therapy in Lake Zurich, was sweating and out of breath for several minutes after he emerged from a maze he had to crawl through wearing his uniform and breathing apparatus.
"The physical demands and positions they have to put themselves into are very challenging," Russell said. "This really gives me a better understanding of the weight of their gear and just how much it restricts their movements."
Russell and Ho are part of a new provider network committed to caring for first responders and getting them back on the job as quickly as possible. In effect, they are treating these first responders like athletes.
The philosophy is the brainchild of the Milwaukee-based Tactical Athlete Health and Performance Institute, or TAHPI. The institute was started in 2010 by Luis Rivera, a physical therapist who formerly worked with major league baseball players.
"He conceived of bringing the sports medicine model to first responders," says Tim Sharpee, president of TAHPI, "and start the healing process within 24 hours."
He likened it to a major league pitcher, who if he complained of a strained shoulder, would be scanned and seen by an orthopedic specialist within one day.
Sharpee says that by connecting firefighters to medical specialists who are committed to preventing injury sooner, they are saving the communities they serve in overtime costs, workers' compensation and health care.
He points to Milwaukee, where last year the access to medical care managed by TAHPI saved the city around $2.3 million.
Rolling Meadows Fire Chief Terry Valentino says the number of injuries to firefighters is little known by the public, but they happen often, and not just from exposure to smoke and fire.
He points to a Rolling Meadows firefighter who sustained a back injury last December. Because of the city's enrollment in TAHPI, he saw an orthopedic specialist the next day and went for a physical therapy assessment that afternoon.
That week, he eventually was referred to a physical therapist near his home in Algonquin and was back to work in three weeks, Valentino says.
"I estimate the city saved more than $10,000 in hire back costs," Valentino says, "that we probably would of incurred had we not gotten into the TAHPI work flow."
Rolling Meadows was among the first suburban departments to partner with TAHPI, and the other departments who helped out at the training session also signed up. They are among 40 departments in five states who now treat their first responders as athletes.