Firefighting is not a quiet profession. Key elements of fighting fires involve loud equipment, chaotic situations and long exposures to extra-loud fire sirens. Now, a group of firefighters in Palm Beach County, Florida, is suing the siren company, Federal Signal, for permanent damage done to their hearing by the sirens on fire trucks.
The case deals with the consequences of occupational exposure to hazardous noise, and presents a special concern for emergency responders.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set certain regulations for hazardous noise. The threshold of 85 decibels (dB) is where exposure to loud sounds can start doing permanent damage to our hearing.
Exposure to 85 dB for longer than eight hours can cause irreparable damage to hearing. Decibel levels work exponentially, so noise levels just 10 decibels higher, at 95 dB, cause hearing damage 8 times faster, after only one hour of exposure.
Emergency sirens consistently emit a noise around 110-120 dB, which can cause hearing damage even before one minute of noise exposure. Most of us only experience the force loud sirens in extremely short bursts as emergency vehicles drive past. Sirens, when experienced just momentarily, are not harmful to our hearing.
For fire fighters however, exposure to siren noise is very frequent and their hearing is often unprotected.
A Catch-22 or Two
There are several safety conflicts in assessing the damage being done by fire sirens. Federal Signal uses the first conflict as the basis for its defense: sirens need to be extremely loud to facilitate safe and swift response to an emergency. Drivers and pedestrians need a clear signal to make way for emergency responders, and to be as clear as possible, especially at high speeds, also requires significant volume.
So to protect the public, and to make an easier, safer path for emergency vehicles sirens need to project sound loudly – but does this outweigh the toll it can take on the hearing ability of firefighters?
The second conundrum of fire sirens complicates the case. The National Fire Protection Association has strict safety standards that fire fighters must meet including being able to pass a hearing exam. Fire fighters need the full range of their hearing to properly handle a fire scene, including being able to detect noises like hazards or crying. Fire fighters with a full range of hearing are better able to protect others and themselves from harm.
However, the loud noises associated with fire fighting, not the least of which is the ringing engine siren, can do enough hearing damage that a fire fighter may not pass their hearing exam.
In the current Palm Beach County action, 23 fire fighters- 12 formerly employed and 11 currently employed by county fire departments- are seeking damages up to $75,000 each from Federal Signal, an Illinois-based siren manufacturer.
Federal Signal maintains that the frequency and sound level of its product is a requirement for its effectiveness. It also advocates for fire departments providing hearing protection for personnel exposed to sirens for long periods of time.
The fire fighters in Palm Beach County assert that no safety information was provided to them about potential hearing damage from the siren, although the company denies wrongdoing. This is not the first case brought against Federal Signal for hearing damage.
Records show that over 4,400 fire fighters have sued the company over hearing loss. Results have been mixed, including over 1,700 cases dropped in Chicago and a settlement reached for over 1,000 workers in Philadelphia.
New Ideas in Hearing Protection
Some jobs and situations require acute hearing ability while conversely having the potential for hearing damage. In addition to fire fighting, military jobs and hunting for sport present similar conundrums. One solution being developed is digital ear protection that allows low-volume noises to be heard while clipping dangerous noise levels.
For fire fighters, groups are now advocating for safety training and for hearing protection be provided while riding near a fire siren. Hopefully, through advocacy and education solutions can be found that take everyone’s safety into account.
Gulf Gate Hearing Aid Center
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