UWM, Milwaukee Fire Department and Athletico team up

A Milwaukee Fire Department cadet performs a single-leg Y-balance test, used to assess lower extremity injury risk. Observing are John Waszak (kneeling), undergraduate research assistant; Foundations of Injury Prevention & Performance class members (from left) Morgan Kelly-Huber, Kim Kelley and Mindy Lein; and Jason Mims (right of cadet), MFD health safety officer. (Photo by Troye Fox.)

Firefighters and elite athletes share a lot of the same challenges. That realization serves as the driving force behind the Developing the Occupational Athlete Project.

Designed to advance performance and health of Milwaukee firefighters, the project is a collaboration among the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Health Sciences, Athletico Physical Therapy and the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD).

“Two years in the creation, this partnership represents a paradigm for teaching, learning and research – with the long-term goal of advancing safety in Milwaukee,” says Kyle Ebersole, associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Human Performance & Sport Physiology Laboratory at UWM.

Impetus for the project came from Jason Mims, MFD health safety officer. He and Athletico manager Luis Rivera began working together on a project to improve firefighter injury rehabilitation. P

Rivera brought Ebersole into the discussion. “We decided to join forces and establish a model program for advancing the performance of firefighters, reducing injury, improving injury care and enhancing life-long health for firefighters,” Mims says.

An opportunity, not a problem

Ebersole emphasizes that the project wasn’t a response to a fire department “health problem,” but to the idea that fire department personnel could capitalize on current exercise science to be healthier and improve performance.

The partners designed a plan that included redesigning the fitness and performance evaluation process, implementing exercise programs aimed at improving mobility and power, integrating psychological skills and creating an effective pathway for injury evaluation, treatment and return.

To help implement the plan, a Peer Fitness Training program was launched. The MFD supported firefighters to become certified personal fitness trainers (PFTs). A firefighter who wants to establish a personal fitness program can go to a PFT for assistance.

“The PFTs also are actively involved in helping with data collection and acting as the liaison between me, rehabilitative facilities such as Athletico and the firefighters,” says Ebersole. “As this program evolves, the PFTs will become more comfortable identifying someone who might need further evaluation by UWM’s labs or facilities such as Athletico’s in order to optimize health and/or performance.”

Ebersole brought UWM students at many different levels of study into the project through his role as faculty in the Doctor of Physical Therapy, Undergraduate Athletic Training, PhD in Health Sciences, Master of Science Kinesiology and Undergraduate Kinesiology programs.

From classroom to the real world

The project has transferred classroom learning to the real world by bringing students to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Safety Academy to participate in the initial fitness evaluation process.

In turn, fire chiefs came to the Klotsche Pavilion to attend Ebersole’s Advanced Exercise Physiology course. In another example of “town-to-gown,” the fire department donated equipment for class experiments.

In addition to the graduate students from Ebersole’s lab, graduate students from the Laboratory for Sport Psychology & Performance Excellence, directed by Professor Barbara Meyer, are actively involved. In November, MFD representatives attended a thesis proposal presentation by a Master’s in Kinesiology student, representing Meyer’s lab, working with the project.

There also are six Doctor of Physical Therapy students engaged in a health literacy project through a course taught by Kathy Zalewski, associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

Ebersole says a powerful element of the project is that all students, regardless of level, work in teams to directly contribute to the collection of data, teaching and learning from each other.

In addition, Ebersole’s Foundations of Injury Prevention & Performance class has participated in the initial fitness evaluation process at the academy, and a second class has explored the physiological influence of the firefighters’ protective gear on power production. A student from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program also is assigned to the project.

Ebersole points to a definite advantage for both students and clients when practitioners and researchers bring the appropriate professional partners into the process. “When that happens, the whole person is treated. The result is a much more inclusive and effective form of care,” he says. “Yet it is only possible when all of the key players share the same vision. That is the unique strength we have with the partnership with MFD and Athletico.

“The students are participating in a truly integrated and interdisciplinary approach to performance and health – something many courses discuss, but few actually demonstrate. As these students enter their professional fields, this hands-on experience will truly set them apart.”