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"Can You Hear Me Now?" - Hearing Health & The Public Safety Telecommunicator

Author: David Dowling

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-03-03
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April, 1973…Headquarters Fire Station, Fontana, California. The newly finished Joint Powers Authority Fire Dispatch Office for the consolidated Fontana, Bloomington and Muscoy Fire Districts was being introduced to the real world. Housed in a small room adjoining the Engine Bay with its distinctive sounds, this new facility would allow the old world to creep into the new. Multi-line Western Electric telephone keysets, with headset capabilities, replaced the old, single emergency line telephones. New multi-channel, GE VHF radios replaced the overcrowded, single channel radio and sat side by side with an aging, but still in use, Gamewell Box Alarm system, whose loud ringing bells were activated by a lever pulled at one of 30 street boxes, as heard in this sound clip. Put this all together with a 1971 Ward La France fire engine sporting a very loud electro-mechanical, Federal Q2B siren similar to this sound clip and you had the making of an acoustical disaster for the dispatcher. With this siren’s deafening level of 123 DBs at 10 feet, the citizen’s telephone call for help could not be heard. Early on, this combination of noise showed me how very important the human act of hearing was to our dispatchers. The art of listening by the dispatcher demands a high level of hearing. To do less would be an injustice to the dispatcher, the employer and the citizen who might only get one chance in a lifetime to call 9-1-1 for help!

After many years in this field, I feel that the time has come to bring this deficiency to the forefront. As I researched this subject deeper, several items concerned me. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (September 2002), “more than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous sound levels on a regular basis.” This group also estimates that 17% of adults in the United States have a hearing loss. I would also find that any Hearing Standards for Telecommunicators were far from being commonplace. An inquiry to this particular industry’s oldest support group, the Associated Public Safety Communications Officers Association (APCO-est. 1935) regarding this subject, generated the following response. According to Jay English, ENP and Director of Comm Center/9-1-1 Services for APCO: “While APCO is certainly invested in standards for telecommunications staff, and has developed a number of standards as an ANSI ASD (American National Standards Institute-Accredited Standards Developer,) to date we have not delved into the area of hearing standards or tests. In addition, we’ve not had any substantive input from our members on the subject. Given the subject involves the ADA and local policies, we have deferred to the federal statutes and local agencies on this issue.”

Since both dispatchers and their employers would probably have a lot to say about this subject, considering its importance, I turned to Social Media for comments. The comments ran the spectrum from having in place adequate standards to having no standards whatsoever in place. My personal experience over a 40 year career, ending in 2008, has seen five of my co-workers, with a combined total time on the job of over 100 years, retire with moderate to severe hearing loss. All of these dispatchers, two of which were supervisors, began in the pre-headset era and went through a challenging period of transition to headsets in the early part of their careers. Since there were never any hearing standards in place for them during this time or at the time of their hiring, their hearing losses could not be directly attributable to on the job causes. It will never be known whether their hearing problems contributed to call handling mistakes or whether the introduction of headsets to their workplace contributed to their eventual hearing losses from sounds such as is generated by this Plectron encoder. For that fact, I’m sure I join other managers in other PSAPs in having regrets that more wasn’t done to prevent hearing losses or to make reasonable accommodations to mitigate these issues. Depending on the definition of a PSAP or “dispatch center,” the estimates from NENA and other sources indicate that there are between 6,100 and 25,000 of these establishments in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 240 million 9-1-1 calls are made each year, not to mention calls to 7-digit emergency numbers. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t alone in interpreting these issues, so I have included highlights of your social media comments regarding this subject. Remember that these statements may or may not reflect the parent agencies policies, but rather individual interpretations of policy or practice.

  • “Within the City of Winnipeg, all staff must provide hearing test results on submission of application for the bulletin.  We test all Communication Centre personnel annually thereafter. Yearly testing is voluntary and staff need not test.”- Margot Bergstrom, Manager Communication, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada.
  • “Our agency does pre-hire testing as well as every 3 years based on CBA requirements. The doctor we utilize tracks the information and works with the employees when they have a loss.”- Peggy Fouts, ENP, Director, Grays Harbor E9-1-1, Aberdeen WA.
  • “Our agency requires a hearing test as part of the hiring process when the applicant completes his pre-employment medical check.” - Paul Miller, Senior Communications Officer, Alpharetta DPS.
  • “We do require a hearing test. It’s done pre-employment as part of the physical exam. We do not re-exam the employee once hired unless it is absolutely necessary due to a decline in work performance.” - Erin M. Brockus, ENP, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, Asst. Communications Mgr/9-1-1 County Coordinator, Peer Support Member.
  • “Our department request hearing tests as part of the offer of employment. Standard hearing test with no real base range. Our job depends on hearing and if there is ANY baseline for a hearing test for dispatchers, I would love to see the information.” - Cindy Snyder, ENP Director, Steuben County Communications, Angola, IN.
  • Our Dept. does not test pre hire or at any time, so far.” - Maggie, Geneva PD.
  • “These particular comments reflect a history of being exposed to loud bell alarms that were hard to shut down with a possible reduction in hearing after 39 years on the job” - Rich Dean, Butler, NJ Secretary of North Jersey Volunteer Fireman’s Assc.
  • “No pre-test or post hire hearing tests here in Madison, WI however per current contract language an employee from operations received a mandatory hearing test at County expense due to a potential hearing problem which was negatively impacting their ability to function and creating a substantial liability.”…Paul Logan, Operations Manager-Fire & EMS, Dane County Public Safety Communications, Madison, WI.
  • “No hearing tests of any kind.” - Frank Raffa, Supv. Dispatcher, FDNY, Burough of Brooklyn.
  • “In 5 agencies in 25 years, I’ve had only two hearing tests and those were part of the pre-employment process.” This respondent’s comments continue and cover a cursory hearing test at Berkeley PD (CA) that consisted of the question “can you hear me?” posed by the doctor. At the Solano County Sheriff’s Department (CA) a hearing test was conducted as part of the pre-employment process. “It’s sad really that more departments don’t do more pre-work hearing exams. No agency worth its salt would consider sending a law enforcement officer or firefighter in the field without first having a medical exam. In fact, most have annual physicals.” - Diana Sprain
  • “We have struggled with the ADA side of dispatchers and hearing problems. We do not have any guidelines here at the Oakland Police Department.” - Regina Harris
  • “I had no experience with hearing problems in my time with the Colton PD (CA) or the California Highway Patrol. And unless things have changed since 1999, there was no testing outside of the initial employment medical exam. Sounds like a hearing test for dispatch people should be a MUST… just makes good sense. And certainly for the older set who have been on the job for some time. It seems to be the problem could be worse using headsets rather than an open speaker like was used in the beginning of our service.” - Duane Kendall, Area Commander-Los Angeles Communications Center/TMC (Retired,) California Highway Patrol.
  • “After about 15 years of wearing a headset over my right ear, my hearing was declining. The volumes going directly into the ear ranged from a whisper on the phone (caller did not want anyone but the dispatcher to hear he/she was calling for help) to the full volume of a downed firefighters emergency alert, as heard from this sound clip (www.youtube.com/watch?v=mThpyWGzlic...that was painful.) It was determined that a 50% hearing loss had occurred and was job related. I was fitted with a hearing amplifier which helped with the normal and low volume sounds but only increased the nerve damage with the louder tones. I now wear a computerized hearing aid but still suffer from ear pain and clarity of certain voices. No hearing test prior to being employed at either location.”- Julie Cornwall, Fire Dispatcher (Retired) from Lake Arrowhead (CA) FD and San Bernardino County (CA) FD, 1986-2008.
  • Comments made from a similar communications service indicate a cursory hearing exam performed by the US Public Health Service for a Coast Guard radio license by “smacking a tuning fork and holding it up to see if you can hear it. I expect that it was a minimum standard just to see if you could hear through a couple of octaves at least. No further tests or exams after that time. After all the years of copying dits and dahs through static crashes and other noise coupled with age, my upper frequencies are somewhat diminished. However I was able to hear up to about 20+ KHZ in my younger years. I do notice that now, however, things seem a bit muddy at times and I have to ask for repeats.”- Paul Smith, Maritime Service and 800 MHZ Analyst(Retired) San Bernardino County (CA)

 

A Pleasant Surprise Discovered

On June 10, 2006, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Accessibility Committee and Human Resources Sub-Committee quietly published a Hearing Standard for Public Safety Telecommunicators (54-002). Hidden in plain sight, this document appears to have been developed by qualified NENA members led by John Haynes, Wendi Lively, and Richard Ray. A great deal of research and thought appears to have been put into creating this document. (www.nena.org/?page=hearingstandards_TCs). 

Among other specifics that are detailed in the Standard, it stresses that this document is an “information source for the voluntary use of communication centers and is provided as an example only. It is not intended to be a complete operational directive.” Under Section 2.2- Reason to Implement, it states, “This standard will be helpful to PSAP managers by providing reasonable and defensible industry accepted minimum hearing standards for public safety Telecommunicators.” In regards to evaluations for candidates for employment, it goes on to state, “This evaluation shall be conducted prior to the candidates entering a training program or participating in departmental activities.” Regarding applicability to current employees, it further states, “Although not required, it is recommended that employees undergo annual audiometric testing to identify any deterioration in hearing ability as early as possible and determine continued fitness to perform job related tasks.” Basic technical items are also covered, as in this important example, “a person who cannot hear a sound until its intensity is higher than 25 dB is considered to be experiencing hearing loss.”

An additional and relevant comment, regarding the NENA 2006 Standard, was received from the Principal Consultant/Biddle Consulting Group, Inc. which states in part… “I am concerned by the NENA standards since they appear to be a simple ‘cut and paste’ from other jobs, without consideration for how telecommunication might differ from other types of jobs,” wrote Jim Kuthy, Ph.D.. For example, it would appear that a call-taker could reasonably use a hearing aid on the job whereas that might not be appropriate for a firefighter. Also, I see that under Section 3.2.3, it refers to “fitness to perform job related tasks,” but I didn’t see a similar notation for entry level testing. It seems to imply that the ADA functions differently for current employees as opposed to applicants. My experience is that it should be whether the person can perform the job or not. I would be afraid that some agencies might use the NENA standards as “gospel” and refuse to hire anyone who does not meet their minimum standard, with or without reasonable accommodation. I think the take away that I see is that hearing standards by themselves should be used as a guide for determining whether someone can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation and not as a threshold that all applicants must achieve without accommodation

Since I (the author) was not a participant in the research here nor am I an expert in the technical or disability issues here, my only fault with this document lies with Section 3.4.2 (Job Task Necessity) where it says “It is essential to the life and safety of the community and Public Safety Responders for Public Safety Telecommunicators to meet the hearing standards set forth in this document.” This is an important crux of the issue and should have been included in the beginning and received much more emphasis. The value of testing the hearing of the people that answer a call for help cannot and should not be under-emphasized.

This Standard, if followed when first implemented in 2006, would have gone a long way to providing the citizen, the telecommunicator and management personnel with a much more effective, lifesaving and methodical guide for dealing with these hearing issues.

 

What Does The Future Hold?

Despite the fact that I presented NENA with several questions as to their methods of research into the Standard and their methods of distribution and dissemination of this Standard, answers were not readily forthcoming.

But, on February 18, 2014 I received an email from NENA’s Richard Ray informing me that the revised “NENA Hearing Standard for Telecommunicators” document had been released for public review and comment and also that my comments had already been forwarded to the authors. The following are their specific instructions from this email for providing comments:

“New NENA Standards Document available for Public Review and Comment

NENA Hearing Standards for Telecommunicators, NENA-STA-XXX.1 (formerly NENA 54-002) (DRAFT) has been posted to the NENA collaboration website and is available for a 15 Business Day Public Review and Comment starting February 14, 2014, and ends on March 7, 2014, at 5PM ET. All comments shall be submitted by going to [click here] and then selecting “add a comment” just above the title “Document Details.” Ensure the section labeled “Email Notifications” has nothing checked. Please complete all requested data and “Save” OR if submitting multiple comments, select “Save and Add Another.”

Any questions or concerns with submitting your comments please contact the NENA Committee Resource Manager.”

Almost 8 years have now passed since the original NENA Standard 54-002 has been published. Based on my experience and the comments received from Telecommunicators around North America, no one was aware that this Standard had been developed and that it was available to be used as is or as a guideline for further usage in the industry. Can you, the reader, imagine the number of Telecommunicators, Managers, Human Resource Directors and Citizens that this lack of Hearing Standards might have affected during that time period?

On a much more positive note, I have now just received correspondence from NENA’s Wendi Lively of Spartanburg County Communications/9-1-1 concerning NENA attempts to “get the word out about the standard.” She advises that she is looking into co-operation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA). She further states that “CALEA has a standard that requires pre-employment medical screening of candidates. CALEA has a strong relationship with APCO so I would like NENA leadership to see if APCO will help push to make the standard a part of this CALEA standard.”

The past is now “water under the bridge” and the industry needs to move forward as quickly as possible to correct this deficiency. Don’t just assume that adequate Hearing Standards exist for your agency. If you are a current telecommunicator, ask your supervisor, does your agency have hearing standards? If you plan on applying for a telecommunicator position, ask your interviewer, does a hearing standard exist for the position you are applying for? If you are a comm center manager, ask your human resources director if/when hearing standards will be adopted for your operation? And, if you are a citizen calling 9-1-1 for assistance, hope that the telecommunicator assisting you has the necessary hearing ability to enable him or her to save your life. This might be your only chance to be heard!   

 

David Dowling, confined to a wheelchair but not by it for 63 years, retired after a 40-year career in Emergency Communications with the San Bernardino County Fire Department in Southern California.  He lives in Highland, California with his wife Cathy and their 4 dogs and 30 tropical birds. He is a former musician, a model train and weather enthusiast and now a freelance writer. His articles and pictures have been published in a variety of magazines, newsletters, and websites.  This is his fourth article for 9-1-1 Magazine.  

Related story: RIP David Dowling April 18 2014

Photo: 9-1-1 magazine file photo/R D Larson

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