The pain and inflexibility were getting worse.
From his years of service as a firefighter, Larry Rockwell had an injured right knee that doctors said would need a replacement. The Greenwood Fire Department battalion chief had aching legs all the time.
“My knees, my legs, there really wasn’t any strength. There was constant pain in it,” he said.
But over the past six weeks, Rockwell has found relief with the help of an athletic trainer.
He is one of many Greenwood firefighters and police officers benefiting from a unique, new partnership. The city has agreed to work with Forté Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, formerly known as Methodist Sports Medicine, to provide tactical athlete services for both departments.
Starting in April, officers and firefighters have been able to access a wide range of services — from biomechanical analysis to individualized injury prevention programs to orthopedic evaluation. Greenwood is one of the first cities in Indiana, and the nation, to have an embedded athletic trainer providing these services.
In doing so, leaders hope to improve the lives of public safety officials and make communities safer.
“In any field, the more well-rounded and comfortable you are as a human being, the better you can do your job. It just so happens that in police and fire, it has a lot more to do with your physical health than it would if you were at a desk job,” said Maura “Mo” Shea, who leads the tactical athlete program for Forté.
The partnership was inspired by work that Shea has been doing around the state for the past couple of years. After earning a bachelor’s degree in athletic training at Xavier University and then a clinical doctorate in athletic training at Indiana State University, she was offered an opportunity to work with the Terre Haute Fire Department as the final part of her residency.
The experience was eye-opening.
“It was literally handing me the keys, make it work. I knew nothing. I hadn’t gone on a kindergarten field trip to a firehouse and didn’t know what anything was. So I just jumped into the deep end on that,” Shea said. “But it went very well. It had a much higher volume rate than the chief anticipated.”
The Terre Haute program was the first in the country offering athletic training services to public safety departments in the state, and one of only about five in the United States. They were the only ones who embedded a trainer within a department.
The success that they saw generated excitement around the country, said Sue Finkam, marketing director for Forte Sports Medicine.
“The reason embedment is important is, it comes from the athletic world. In the 1950s, we started putting team (doctors) right with the team. You get better relationships, you get to know the athletes – their tendencies, their health conditions, their traits, vs. someone in a clinic just waiting for a patient to show up,” she said. “There is a trust that’s built.”
Through the process, trainers also get to learn about the patients’ families, their interests, injuries that maybe they would not have revealed otherwise.
“It becomes a completely different conversation, and you get to learn about way more pathologies in that person. They may not tell you that it hurts to pick up their toddler unless you start talking about their toddler,” Shea said.
After speaking about incorporating wellness programs into fire departments at the Indiana Emergency Responders Conference, a team from Methodist Sports Medicine approached her to spearhead the tactical athlete program.
Tactical athlete services include aspects such as preventative care, health maintenance support, injury triage, immediate care and rehabilitation.
The first thing the team does with every department is screening. They do a baseline concussion screening, providing an evidence-based approach to where a person is normally vs. what they may be experiencing after a head injury.
Clinical screenings help measure functional movement in and out of their uniform or gear. Other tests gauge mobility in joints that are affected doing police or firefighting work.
A follow-up survey collects more information that issued to better focus treatment, Shea said.
“Police and fire don’t like answering surveys. But when you put it in the context of, this is how we’re going to build your individualized program, and this is how we’re going to nationally improve health care for your brothers and sisters in this profession, we get incredibly high response rate,” she said.
All of the different data points come together with the goals a patient has for their individualized prevention program. Entire teams or units also come in to work on injury prevention.
After providing tactical care for the Carmel Police Department, Bloomington fire and police departments and the White River Township Fire Department, Greenwood inquired about taking part in the program as well.
“We pride ourselves on investing in and delivering the best quality of life to residents and visitors and that starts with public safety,” said Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers. “It is the goal, with our Forté partnership, to ensure our first responders have quality care such that they can be at their best.”
Providing this kind of care can save the city money in the long run, while also making the city safer, said Darin Hoggatt, Greenwood fire chief.
“To have a firefighter off work due to an injury costs our department hundreds of dollars a day and negatively impacts that firefighter and his or her family,” Hoggatt said. “We anticipate this program will help save money and improve team performance and morale, which are important as we work to preserve the life and property for all who live in and visit the City of Greenwood.”
Forté provides services to the city at a flat rate, meaning police officers and firefighters can access care as often as needed at no additional fee, Shea said.
To house the program, Greenwood officials renovated the space that was formerly a Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting hall. The building is now filled with treatment tables, workout machines, weights and other equipment. The location offers a place near both police and fire headquarters to get treatment. Services at the site began in early April.
Shea works full-time as the trainer for the White River Township Fire Department, and oversees trainers at other locations.
To provide tactical training in Greenwood, Forté hired athletic trainer Dave Walston, who had served as a trainer with the Indianapolis Colts for nearly 30 years.
Training public safety personnel and athletes has plenty of similarities, Walston said.
“They both train very hard to perform their jobs. They just have different skill sets. However, within that skill set, they both have very similar movement patterns,” Walston said. “I don’t care if you’re squatting, if you’re doing a lunge step or a hurdle step, if you’re lifting, pulling or pushing, it’s very similar movement patterns.”
But serving tactical athletes has a special meaning.
“It’s a joy to work with these guys. The big thing for me, these men and women are being of service to the community of Greenwood. By being of service to them, I’m someone a small part of being in service to Greenwood as well,” Walston said.
Rockwell has been going through treatment with Walston since early April. From the first day, he’s noticed significant improvement.
“I come in two to three times a week, and (Walston) has worked on me. I don’t have nearly the pain that I used to have,” he said. “My flexibility is much better. I’ve built up flexibility in my quads, where I didn’t have that before. It’s been a slow process, but he’s worked very diligently to be where I need to be.”
Having access to these kinds of services, which can take advantage of whenever it fits into his schedule, has been incredibly beneficial.
“It’s huge. There hasn’t been a time when I haven’t been able to call him or send him a text message, and he can get me in that day. I usually schedule out for the week and go from there,” Rockwell said. “It’s been a great thing.”