LAGOS, Nigeria (April 7, 2011) A Nigerian firefighting team practice hose handling during a damage control drill aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Robert G. Bradley (FFG 49) as part of Africa Partnership Station (APS) West. APS is an international security cooperation initiative designed to strengthen global maritime partnerships through training and collaborative activities to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Darryl Wood/Released)
You can usually tell which firefighter have been around a long time by their waistline, and their gray hair. Unless you work hard at it, those things take their toll after a number of years. Another thing that is pretty common with firefighters is hearing loss.
The years of being repeatedly exposed to loud noises is a very serious and underrated problem with firefighters. We worry about breathing smoke, driving safely, and infectious diseases but protecting our hearing is often forgotten.
The first thing that comes to mind when we think about firefighting and loud noise is the sirens and air horns we use to alert people we are coming. You can really tell how loud those things are if you are walking down the street when a fire engine drives by on the way to a call. With nothing between the pedestrians and the noise the sound can be so loud it hurts.
If you are driving in a car the siren is still loud, but if you have the window rolled up it protects you from a lot of the noise. Putting up the windows is a very easy way to protect your hearing, you don’t need any special equipment, and it’s free.
We have come a long way from the open cabs we used to drive around in. We are now closed in and protected from a lot of hazards including siren noise. Almost all fire apparatus now has headphones to protect hearing. These headphone systems let us talk to one another, hear our radio traffic, and still block out the siren noise. Years ago it was so loud the firefighter on the back step had to listen for directions given by the officer knocking on the window, today we can all hear radio traffic and each other with no problem. Unfortunately there are still firefighters who choose not to use these headphones.
Fire apparatus are also designed to put the siren noise where it needs to be, on the street in front of us. Sirens and air horns are now mounted at street level on the bumper, instead of on the roof of the cab on top of our head. Apparatus and siren changes have reduced siren noise in the cab by as much as 70%.
We also have some pretty loud tools that we use. Chainsaws, K-12 saws, and our smoke ejector fans can get pretty loud. If you stand next to a pumper or generator for a long time you will also feel what repetitive noise can do to your ears. That ringing in your ears after you ran the pump for an annual pump testing routine is telling you that you should have used hearing protection. Headaches have also been found to be caused by the noise from our equipment.
When you have to constantly ask people to repeat themselves, and sounds around you seem to be muffled you have probably suffered some hearing loss. Early on these hearing problems will happen more after working a shift. The sad news is that by the end of your career ? of firefighters will suffer from a measureable amount of hearing loss. The good news is that hearing loss in the fire service is preventable.
Improvements in hearing systems have made it easier to protect ourselves. The protection is there, you just need to use it.