Strategies for Protecting Firefighter Hearing

By Seth R. Nadel

For FireRescue

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.

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