Athletic training fellowship breaks new ground

Illustration by Marcia Staimer

Because of the physical demands they face, police and firefighters should be considered athletes, Shane Caswell said. So why not keep them on the job by providing them the same treatment and rehabilitation options that keep injured athletes on the field?

Caswell, a professor of athletic training at George Mason University, and founding executive director of George Mason’s Sports Medicine Assessment, Research and Testing (SMART) Laboratory, created the Athletic Training and Public Safety Fellowship, which has contracted with police and firefighters in Prince William County.

“We’re taking the resources we have at the university, through our undergraduate and graduate programs in athletic training, kinesiology and exercise fitness and health promotion and providing that expertise to the fire department and police,” Caswell said. “I know we’re one of the only programs in the country that has set up a fellowship like this in athletic training to work with this population.”

The program, only operating since January, is small. Brendan Bennett, a master’s candidate in exercise fitness and health promotion, works with the police. Jodi McConnell, a program employee who spent 12 years as an athletic trainer at Elon (N.C.) University, works with firefighters.

Caswell’s vision is of a cadre of students working not only in treatment and rehabilitation of existing injuries but also in strength and conditioning programs to ensure first responders are physically fit, which will cut down on injuries and, in turn, save the county money.

For students, the fellowship provides valuable hands-on experience, Caswell said. It also adds to the SMART Lab’s outreach into Prince William County, and its body of research.

“We’re trying to better understand how we can keep firefighters and police officers healthy throughout their careers,” Caswell said. “We’ve been talking about the nature of the injuries they suffer, and identifying when those injuries occur. Is it during training, what segment of training, or is it on the job and what are the most common activities that result in an injury?”

Bennett and McConnell said injuries treated include torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments, torn biceps, broken bones, and rotator cuff and back injuries.

A firefighter recruit who broke his foot during training was able to graduate on time because of the rehab provided by McConnell. Not completing the training would have meant starting the 25-week program from scratch. Avoiding that saved Prince William County the $50,000 price tag to retrain the recruit, said Frank Orefice, a fire department battalion chief.

“The program has exceeded my expectation,” Orefice said. “There’s a prevention component. There’s a treatment component. There is recognizing minor injuries before they become major injuries. It’s going to be a model for other departments all around the region.”

Added Tara Van Horn, a lieutenant in the Prince William County police department: “What we hope to achieve with this program is the opportunity for injured officers to have the best chance for a long, fulfilling career in public safety without risk of re-injury.”

McConnell called the program’s potential unlimited.

 “I have friends who are police officers and firefighters in other states who are excited to see how this goes,” she said.

And Bennett said the program has changed his career focus from sports to working with first responders.

“This position has been an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I’m very excited to be kind of creating a template for other athletic trainers in the future who want to work in public safety. I’m excited to see what the program turns into and where it can go.”