USF receives FEMA grant to reduce risk of low back pain, disability in firefighters

The grant is largely funded by FEMA with some matching support by the Florida Chiropractic Research Foundation

The University of South Florida's John Mayer, DC, PhD, recently received a $1.3 million Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Assistance of Firefighters grant - a three-year award that will help build upon cumulative research evaluating the effectiveness of targeted exercise programs to reduce the risk of low back pain and disability in firefighters. The grant total includes a 5 percent extramural funding match from the Florida Chiropractic Research Foundation.

Dr. Mayer is the Lincoln Endowed Chair of Biomechanical & Chiropractic Research and coordinator of research for the USF School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Sciences. The new funding supports the third phase of an ongoing FEMA-funded research project investigating the link between poor back muscular fitness and low back pain in firefighters and ultimately identifying exercise interventions that would be safe and effective in helping prevent low back injury and illness in this at risk population.

For the latest study, a full-scale randomized controlled prevention trial, USF will partner with the Tampa Bay region's three largest fire departments, employing a total of 2,000 firefighters: Tampa Fire Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. The researchers will compare the clinical effectiveness of two intervention groups - one receiving a directly supervised exercise regimen at the fire station and the other receiving the same exercise regimen only as a web-based, remote interaction - with a control group.

A smaller randomized controlled trial conducted by Dr. Mayer and colleagues published online earlier this year in the American Journal of Health Promotion demonstrated that a two-time a week, 24-week supervised exercise program targeting back and core muscles in firefighters was safe and effective. Firefighters in the supervised exercise program experienced 12 percent and 21 percent greater gains in back and core muscular endurance, respectively, than did firefighters performing the usual physical fitness regimen (control group).

Back injuries are the leading cause of permanent disability and early retirement among firefighters, who in their physically demanding jobs often carry more than 50 pounds of protective gear, haul heavy fire hoses, and lift and maneuver stretchers around tight corners or contort themselves to extract accident victims from cars.

"Our research thus far indicates that worksite exercise training for back and core muscles is a potentially useful countermeasure to reduce risk of low back pain in firefighters," Dr. Mayer said.


  1. Jamie Glick MS, PT Jamie Glick MS, PT United States says:

    It comes as no surprise that the firefighters enrolled in structured exercise programs experienced improvements in back and core strength and endurance.  Recently, for back health, the spotlight has been on improving back endurance.  This is such a positive outcome, and this type of core training should become part of their job and not done in the off hours with the crew hanging out at the gym.  These firefighters are performing an important job, saving lives, and their bodies need to be in tip-top shape!

    Jamie Glick MS, PT

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