AP NEWS

Firefighter’s injury prevention business grows in northwest Harris County

April 1, 2019

Firefighter and entrepreneur Hunt Whitten believes that preventing injury in a first responder not only affects their life, but the lives of those they will save.

Whitten’s business, Metis Tactical, has been gaining traction among northwest Harris County public safety agencies, with client organizations including the Spring Fire Department, Cypress Creek Fire Department/Harris County Emergency Service District 13, and Northwest Community Health, which provides emergency medical services in Tomball.

Metis Tactical focuses on creating personalized exercise regimens for first responders to prevent job-related injuries. Whitten is founder and CEO of Metis, which he runs with the help of his business partner Army Infantry Combat Veteran Sean Carey, who serves as the company’s director of human performance.

Whitten is a firefighter, health and safety officer and emergency medical technician with the Ponderosa Fire Department. He has over a decade of experience with the department, which he joined at the age of 17. He graduated from Baylor University with a sports medicine degree. He worked for a few years as an outreach athletic trainer for Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine, while still putting in time at the fire department.

Performing as a firefighter requires a functional, job-oriented fitness level, Whitten said, and Metis Tactical’s program is designed to reinforce proper form-focused body movements to prevent injury for firefighters in gear carrying heavy equipment.

“This is a sports medicine prehab component that will keep you on the job longer, keep you safer while doing your job,” Whitten said. “It’s mobility, stability, focus first — building from the ground up as opposed to straight to the strength training.”

Whitten founded Metis Tactical in 2017 according to the company website. Over the next year or so, Whitten conducted a series of pilot programs with the Spring Fire Department. The department has since extended the program within their organization.

“Hunt Whitten is a firefighter,” said Spring Fire Chief Scott Seifert. “He’s also an athletic trainer and he recognized that firefighters are tactical athletes.”

Clients undergo a 3D motion assessment using software designed to identify a person’s motions that could lead to injury, such as decreased external rotation in a shoulder, or asymmetries in the back, said Whitten. From there, a corrective exercise program is built to counteract those deficiencies.

The first responders’ tailored exercise programs are available through a phone app, which collects metrics on an individual’s workout performance — tracking the exercises they do, how frequently, how long, the calories burned. The data collected over time helps identify performance trends.

The Spring Fire Department has also used Metis to ensure firefighters who were injured can return to the job able to perform the duties of a firefighter, Seifert said.

Such was the case with Spring Firefighter Jason Randall, who underwent surgery in 2004 after a military service-related injury ruptured a couple of his back discs. He healed and did not experience issues, until over a decade later in August 2017.

“We had to get water to the guys and I pulled a five-inch (hose) — it’s really heavy, it’s about 118 pounds per section — and I dragged three sections, plus a hydrogen bag,” Randall said. “I ruptured more than the ones I had originally ruptured. Apparently, it was pretty bad.”

Doctors were saying his career as a firefighter should be over, Randall recalled.

“I thought now I have a whole part of my spine that’s completely immobilized,” Randall said. “There was a lot of atrophy, especially my lower body.”

As he began to recover after a lumbar fusion, Randall said he refused to accept the doctors’ projections.

Whitten created an exercise regimen for Randall to enhance mobility and flexibility while slowly adding strength training components to regain muscle mass. Within about three months, Randall said, he was back in the field.

“He knows the demands of the job,” Randall said. “You can take somebody in good physical shape, but you put them in gear in zero visibility and very high heat and people freak out. It’s a very stressful environment and it’s a different kind of fitness and he knows that. He knows the tasks that I’m going to be charged with and he can tailor that program based on the deficiencies I had at that time.”

This wasn’t the first time that Whitten helped an injured fellow firefighter return to the service.

Jimmy Moore is currently a firefighter with the Cypress Creek Fire Department/HCESD13. Moore went to high school with Whitten and served under him as a rookie during his first firefighter job. Moore asked for Whitten’s help after injuring back discs on the job in 2014.

“Initially, I was projected to be off work six months to a year,” Moore said. “I was back in about two, two-and-a-half months and once I got back, I was 120 percent, feeling good.”

Five years later, Moore works for the Cypress Creek Fire Department, which began implementing a beta version of Metis Tactical’s program in mid-January.

“It’s low-impact, really core stability foundational stuff that’s going to get these firefighters up to beyond par for the citizens and that’s our main goal is to make sure these firefighters are going to be providing the best service they can for our taxpayers,” said Cypress Creek Fire Department District Chief Jason Corthell.

Something that Moore realized from his back-injury experience was that seemingly small workouts can go a long way in injury prevention.

“It’s kind of the philosophy — if it can’t bend, it’s going to break,” Moore said. “One of the big things with us is we’ll go from being in bed 3 a.m. to 20 minutes later we’re fighting a fire. We don’t have that time to stretch. This creates a lifestyle to stay loose. It helps a lot for going zero to 60 in five seconds and being prepared.”

Responding to emergencies on a dime is a routine that paramedics are also quite familiar with according to Chief Brian Bayani, executive director of Northwest Community Health.

Bayani said that with the high call volume, physical fitness is not always at the forefront of EMS work like it may be in other first responder fields.

“Our sleep patterns are generally not stable — eat on the go, whatever we can eat as fast as we can eat just in case the next call comes in, and the food choices aren’t always the best,” Bayani said.

Bayani decided to try out the Metis Tactical program in his department.

“Most of the job-related injuries in the last few years have been relatively simple incidents like rolling an ankle stepping out of the ambulance, or picking up a 20-pount monitor or bag and turning the wrong way and straining a shoulder or neck,” Bayani said.

Even simple injuries can take an EMT off the job for two or three weeks. Factoring in cost of employee backfilling, overtime staffing, worker’s compensation and health insurance premiums, the expenses can add up for an organization, Whitten explained. For the first responder taken out of commission, the costs can be more than financial.

“You’re always a firefighter, or a paramedic, whether you’re on duty or off duty,” Whitten said. “If you are hurt — that’s your identify. That’s taking away from you, in a sense.”

With emergency service departments investing in new and innovative technology, Whitten said departments should not neglect what he considers the organizations’ most valuable asset — its people.

Over the next year, Whitten hopes to set up remote hybrid training programs in departments outside of Texas. He is also looking to eventually extend his services to first response organizations beyond firefighters and paramedics.

“I see us across the country hopefully by the end of this year,” Whitten said. “For five years, I want to be the go-to occupational health public safety entity.”