How physical therapists are keeping Denver firefighters stronger and saving taxpayer money

DENVER -- The Denver Fire Department has made a push to boost the overall wellness of its firefighters.

“Our job is inherently a stressful job,” said DFD wellness coordinator Lacy Burke.

Between climbing ladders, pulling hoses and breaking into burning buildings, the job puts physical and emotional stress of the body, Burke says. Four years ago, the department brought on physical therapists to their staff to help firefighters build strength as well as prevent injuries and rehab.

“I’ve had just about every injury you could possibly have,” said A.J. Johansen, an engineer with DFD and career firefighter. Johansen says he recently had a crippling back injury that the team helped him through.

“I’ve been able to recover so much quicker between all the help of these wonderful people,” Johansen said. “They actually go through and teach you what you can do to prevent that injury afterwards.”

“Prior to us being here, it was a lot of just suck it up and go,” said one of the physical therapists Kristy Yarbrough. “That turns into a big problem. At this point, they can catch it because if it becomes a big injury, that’s an identity loss for them. Firefighting is who most of them are.”

Firefighters say they also face a unique problem of having to push through the pain in an emergency.

“We’ll be out fighting a fire, doing whatever we’re doing, lifting a patient, and we get hurt, we have to continue working,” Johansen said. “And so sometimes, it makes those injuries worse.”

Since the physical therapy program started in 2015, DFD has been saving money by proper and customized treatment.

“You feel like it’s more than just a job, it’s a calling. We’re here to serve the people who serve the city and county of Denver,” said physical therapist Casey Stoneberger. “The cost of those injuries has decreased significantly, also the amount of time lost due to those injuries.”

The department estimates they saved $583,154 in 2018 between savings for workers compensation and overtime. This is based on employees returning to work from injury at least 22 calendar days sooner than the year before.

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