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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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To Serve and to Protect: Hearing Protection at Its Best

Author: David Cannington, CMO/Sensear

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-05-17
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Many of today’s emergency personal are missing one integral component of their daily uniform, hearing protection. Between loud sirens, radio blasts and even gunshots, high decibels of noise might be lurking during the next emergency call that is responded to. It comes as no surprise that occupational hearing loss is a serious health issue for those in emergency related fields, but what is surprising is how little is being done to prevent it. Occupational hearing loss is costing society unnecessary dollars in both preventative, and post exposure cost measures. With tighter restrictions being considered by OSHA, some government divisions believe they are taking necessary steps in ensuring hearing loss prevention by spending millions of dollars on devices that are failing to save the hearing of those that save lives.

According to OSHA, “Thousands of workers every year continue to suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2008 alone, BLS reported more than 22,000 hearing loss cases, and Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, emphasized that OSHA remains committed to finding ways to reduce this toll.” OSHA’s attempt back in December of 2010 to pass ‘OSHA’s Provisions for Feasible Administrative or Engineering Controls of Occupational Noise’, to try to remedy preventable hearing loss in the workplace, was premature. Unfortunately sirens are a necessary component of most emergency calls and typically produce 110-120 decibels of noise. The legal limit for worker exposure is 85. For emergency response personal, eliminating or reducing occupational noise is unfortunately an unrealistic option, meaning the only solution, is to protect personnel from the noise they are exposed to.

Back in February of 2009, FireRescue1’s website reported that an Illinois-based siren company had 3,500 firefighter lawsuits pending against it. The ruling stated that the company's siren had significantly damaged the hearing of nine firefighters. It is a known fact that sirens have to be loud enough to be heard by someone who has their radio and air conditioning on, and windows up. There is no denying that the loss of hearing for those thousands of firemen is a true tragedy, but it may be important to dig deeper, and ask if a universally understood emergency signal is to blame, or could the culprit be the lack of proper technologically advanced hearing protection? Most of today’s existing hearing protection is not actually protecting emergency personal form other hazards, as these devices are taking one of their most important senses away, their ability to hear.

According to OSHA’s Dr. Michaels, “There is sufficient evidence that hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss.” His statement is actually not far from the truth. Until recently, there was not an efficient way to protect the hearing of those working in high noise environments. A device would be completely noise cancelling, only solving one aspect of the problem. Imagine if you would, eye protection glasses that did not allow you to see, or foot protection boots that did not allow you walk. Why would people use this protection? Previous hearing protection has been the detriment of overall safety in many high risk areas.

Sadly, the hearing protection industry has come up short by only providing a solution that protects hearing by attempting to cancel noise out, but not one that also enables workers to hear their surrounding environments and communicate effectively with colleagues. Effective communication is a vital component to any emergency response job, especially in a life threatening situation. When workers remove their hearing protection to communicate, they are significantly compromising their protection and in turn, the hearing device has failed to do its job. Some emergency personal have even admitted to not using them at all. 

It has become quite apparent that noise canceling protection devices are only worsening the situation. There needs to be a more efficient way to bring background sound to a realistic hearing level, while still being able to communicate effectively, especially in a life or death situation. Though lowering the sound decibels of sirens may be an important factor to some, imagine remedying the issue with a device that not only alerts oncoming traffic that your nearby, but also lets you communicate with other emergency personal, picking up on human voice better than you normally would, and block out damaging levels of background noise. If an armed robbery gets called in over the radio, are you prepared to give orders in the middle of a shootout?

Today’s technologically sound hearing devices are changing the playing field when it comes to hearing protection.  Noise suppression technologies, which have become synonymous with products used on planes and in cars, are now being combined with speech enhancement technology, and embedded in smart ear plugs and ear muffs to create a breakthrough in hearing protection, one that has the potential to be implemented across the entire world.

Technologies like this can offer the emergency response industry a solution that addresses the primary reasons why hearing protection in the past has failed. Police officers can conduct safe conversations, in high stress, high alert situations either face-to-face or via other critical communication devices such as two-way radios or Bluetooth cell phones. Furthermore, they can enjoy 360 degree situational awareness all while protecting their hearing.

When it comes to the safety of those that protect the lives of others, it is something you cannot put a price on. It would only make sense for such advanced hearing technology to have a higher price point when compared to traditional, less advanced hearing protection devices. With that said, the improved safety and effectiveness of emergency personal who are exposed to high noise environments, combined with the long term cost effectiveness of this new technology, will far surpass any other hearing device available on the market.

With advanced hearing technology in place, those that risk their lives for others, will not have to risk their hearing as well. Emergency personnel can only benefit from the advanced technological capabilities that hearing protection devices bring to the table. So the next time those red lights start to flash and that siren starts to scream, know that in your quest to protect a citizen in need, you should be sure to also protect yourself. 

David Cannington is the Chief Marketing Officer of Sensear, an innovative and award-winning high noise communication technology company.  David has 25+ years experience in international marketing, advertising and business development. For more information on Sensear, see: http://www.sensear.com/

Photo by Mark C. Ide, from 9-1-1 Magazine June 2005 issue.

 

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