Is Your Spine/SCBA Funtioning Properly?

Think about how different the fire service is now compared to how it was 100-plus years ago. Many technological advances have helped improve how you perform and operate within immediately dangerous to life or health atmospheres. The most significant advancement is the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Your SCBA is your lifeline in a fire. By protecting you from carcinogens, heated air, and much more, it allows you to operate safely for an extended period of time. This is the reason checking your SCBA is the first thing you must do at the start of your shift. Is your SCBA functioning properly? Of course, your SCBA is operating, right?

Teach yourself how to check the position of your spine and how doing this is every bit as important as checking your SCBA. Checking your spine means making sure it is properly aligned during every movement you perform. Your spine runs from the base of your neck to the bottom of your tailbone, much like your SCBA. If your spine isn’t functioning properly, it will lead to inefficiencies, injury, or worse, just as your SCBA. So, how do you know if your spine is operating properly?

Be a Column!

Your spine is intended to operate as a column. Columns are strongest under compression, sending all gravitational forces to the ground for displacement. If a column curves or arches, its strength is compromised immediately. A spine that is operating properly is aligned, creating a straight line through your ears, shoulders, and hips. This allows for proper communication, much like a dispatching system, between your central nervous system (CNS) and your peripheral nervous system (PNS).

<b>(1) </b>Using a pike pole as an external cue is a great way to ensure that your self-contained breathing apparatus/spine is functioning properly as you move. <i>(Photos courtesy of author.)</i>
(1) Using a pike pole as an external cue is a great way to ensure that your self-contained breathing apparatus/spine is functioning properly as you move. (Photos courtesy of author.)

However, a spine that isn’t operating properly is curved or arched, breaking that straight line that goes through your ears, shoulders, and hips. In this position, you are placing significant stress on your spine, and you are forcing your spine to resist the gravitational pull acting on it incrementally rather than collectively. This position all but breaks efficient communication between your CNS and PNS, resulting in a faulty dispatching system that can lead to injury.

So, your spine needs to function as properly as your SCBA; it needs to align your ears, shoulders, and hips. Tragically, it is hard to find a properly functioning spine among the general public because of pattern overload and the cumulative injury cycle.

Pattern Overload and the Cumulative Injury Cycle

Pattern overload emphasizes that your body adapts to implied demands and habitual positions and movements. When you operate habitually with a curved or arched spine, your body treats it as if it were an injury, responding with inflammation, muscle spasms, adhesions, and more within the cumulative injury cycle. This then ultimately leads to altered neuromuscular control, creating muscle imbalances that lead to injuries. How do you experience pattern overload? How does the cumulative injury cycle impact you?

<b>(2) </b>Using a pike pole as an external cue is a great way to ensure that your self-contained breathing apparatus/spine is functioning properly as you move. <i>(Photos courtesy of author.)</i>
(2) Using a pike pole as an external cue is a great way to ensure that your self-contained breathing apparatus/spine is functioning properly as you move. (Photos courtesy of author.)

Unfortunately, properly functioning SCBAs are a scarcity. Your environment encourages you to hunch round, lean, extend your neck, and more to text, type, talk, drive, eat, and so on. None of these functions by themselves are bad; it is how you perform them that creates issues. This is the reason you need to check your spine just as you check your SCBA! You can do this by conducting personnel accountability reports (PARs) regularly and by using external feedback.

Your 10-Minute PAR

Accountability is critical for firefighters. You need to know where your company is at all times. However, this can be difficult as you focus on active firefighting operations and address the emergency. This is the whole basis for conducting PARs-to serve as a reminder to perform this important check intermittently. Now, take this same principle and apply it to conducting another type of “PAR” for your spine: a postural awareness report. You’re going to text, type, drive, and so on, but you don’t have to with an improperly functioning spine. Begin to change this by conducting these PARs.

(3) Bad posture during daily activities such as sitting at a computer can lead to alterations in the position of your spine. Being aware of how your spine is aligned throughout the day will also help during emergencies.
(3) Bad posture during daily activities such as sitting at a computer can lead to alterations in the position of your spine. Being aware of how your spine is aligned throughout the day will also help during emergencies.

When doing something in a particular position for an extended period of time, take a moment to become aware of how you are positioned. Are you upright? Are you curved or arched? Are you rounded? If you were a column, how strong would you be? These are all essential questions that, when answered, will improve your health all day long. Tragically, this can be challenging because of the movements and positions you are perpetually in. Is there a way to do what you are doing and still have a properly functioning spine? Yes.

External Feedback

Applying external feedback is a great way to train your spine to operate properly and habitually. A pike pole is a perfect example of external feedback to encourage this cueing (photos 1,2). By using it in different ways, you can train yourself to be as mobile and as stable as you need to be. For these purposes, you are training your lower body to operate with the proper mobility and range of motion while encouraging your spine to be stable. For your spine to be stable, you must establish the following:

  1. Active glutes. Your glutes (gluteal muscles in hip) are critical for mobilizing your lower body and for protecting your lower back. Train yourself in a way that allows your glutes to create and sustain tension for extended periods of time while still being able to lengthen appropriately.
  2. Intra-abdominal pressure. By developing intra-abdominal pressure (tightening up your stomach), you are providing support to your lower lumbar as you move. This also allows you to brace against reactionary forces that may be applied against you.
  3. Scapula retraction and depression. With scapula retraction and depression (or pulling your shoulders down and away from your ears), you are creating security in your upper back while lengthening your chest muscles, which prepares them to act, preventing needless tension in your neck.

How Can I Do This?

One hundred years ago, firefighters didn’t wear SCBAs. Today, you wouldn’t dare work without one. Your SCBA as well as your spine are critically important to your life and safety. So how is your spine? Is it operating as it should be, or is it malfunctioning? If your SCBA is malfunctioning, what do you do? Get your spine right by conducting PARs and using a pike pole to cue you about the alignment of your spine.

JORDAN PONDER is a captain for the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department (MFD) and a 12-year EMT-B. As the lead peer fitness trainer for MFD and the campaign director of FD-PT, he educates emergency responders on how they can reduce injuries by preparing for the demands of emergency scenes. He is certified with the American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine and has multiple modality and functional fitness certifications. Ponder also competes as a World Natural Bodybuilding Federation professional bodybuilder.

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