Strategies for Protecting Firefighter Hearing

Issue 6 and Volume 9.

There is something dangerous that can be found at fire and rescue scenes that we often notice, but tend to ignore. Although it doesn’t present an immediate danger, it can have a negative impact on our health. But this danger is something we never talk about, perhaps because we no longer hear it. While we address the obvious dangers of flame, heat, toxic smoke, collapse, stress, falls, etc., we don’t seem to notice the impact of the one danger that we bring to the scene—noise.

I’m sensitive to the issue, as I have had tinnitus ringing in my ears for 50 years. While mine was not caused by my time in the fire service, it has impacted my life. My chosen career in the military never happened because I didn’t hear well enough to pass the physical. I know I missed out on a number of good opportunities, because I couldn’t hear either the offer or the positive response to my queries. So how could fireground noise be harmful?

Noise Level
Consider the noise level at a simple nighttime motor vehicle accident involving extrication. After the siren is turned off, the fire truck’s engine continues to run at high revolutions per minute (RPM) to keep a line charged. Next, in most cases, a gas-powered generator is fired up to power the lights. Then, another gas-powered unit is started up to power the extrication tools. All of this is going on while we’re hammering on various steel parts to clear them for the power tools. On some occasions, we also add the noise from a gas-powered saw that cuts away the steel or fiberglass around the structural members.

At a structure fire, we have multiple engines running at high RPM to pump water, chainsaws cutting ventilation holes in roofs, and gas-powered fans creating positive pressure ventilation (PPV). Add radios, the noise from the fire, team members cutting holes in walls and breaking doors, and lights at a night scene, and it’s a wonder any of us can still hear. Of course we then turn up our radios so we can hear them over all the ambient noise, and yell into our team members’ ears to give and get commands.

How many of us have been injured because we never heard a warning? How many victims could have been saved, if only we could have heard their cries for help? Is it any wonder that in most stationhouses the TV volume is turned way up so everyone can hear the game?

Noise Solutions
There’s little use in identifying a problem without suggesting a solution. For the short term, personal protection for firefighters from this racket can be an inexpensive earplug in one ear and an in-ear speaker (earbud) for the radio in the other. Those required to operate the various gas-powered engines should be supplied with, and required to use, these items or even a full earmuff type protection. Engineers, standing for hours next to the pump panels, fall into this category and should be supplied with, and required to use, an earmuff type hearing protection with a noise cancelling mic, which can be plugged directly into the engine’s radio system or into a handheld radio on their belt.

If you’re concerned about hearing cries for help while searching a structure, there are some earplugs that allow you to hear regular voices but cut out too-loud impact noises. They are more expensive but well worth it.

When buying earplugs or earmuffs, the noise reduction rating (NRR) is the critical number to pay attention to—always seek out the highest NRR. The NRR is shown on the container, and it is a logarithmic scale, meaning a NRR of 23 is twice as effective as an NRR of 20.

The issue at most fire scenes is the continuous noise, not sudden sharp noises. No hearing protection is more expensive than the potential payout to a firefighter with a documented job-related hearing loss. And a handful of the high NRR earplugs from your local gun shop are well within the budget of the most cash-strapped volunteer department.

New Tools
Over the longer term, a gradual replacement of gas-powered tools with new, battery-operated tools will remove many of the sources of continuous noise. I have had personal experience with the new, battery-operated LED scene lights, and it was very positive. With the silent lights, we could hear commands over the radio or by direct voice, as well as voice warnings about potential hazards. And since each light has its own battery, there were no power cables to trip over and they could be located at great distances from each other.

Replacing extrication tools with battery-powered ones will have a similar positive effect, and the same is true for electric chainsaws. But tool replacement must wait until the batteries are perfected so they will last long enough for even the biggest scene.

Think Long Term
Some noise will always remain, from our efforts to force exterior and interior doors, bend metal parts of cars, and participate in the 1,001 other noise-generating tasks on the fireground. But reducing the overall noise level means the next generation of firefighters will be able to hear cries for help at the fire scene, as well as their partner’s soft words, and their children and grandchildren laughing and crying, without needing hearing aids. Even the station TV will sound clearer.

The current situation cannot be tolerated. With the low cost of earplugs and earbuds for radios, these should rate high on the list of health and safety items to be acquired for your department. The lights, extrication tools and saws will of course take more time and money. But success will be measured when you don’t have to yell to be heard at a retirement party—particularly your own.