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Protecting the At-Risk Ears of Firefighters and Law Enforcement

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With sirens wailing and air horns blaring, firefighters make their way to roaring fires or emergency calls. They crank up the ladder and blast their high-pressure hoses. But in the urgency to help others, firefighters often aren’t protecting their hearing from the high-decibel noises frequently surrounding them. 

“You’re dealing with people yelling. We’re dealing with chainsaws. We’re dealing with a lot of heavy equipment that makes a lot of noise. These rigs make a lot of noise,” said Chris Strom, captain, Minneapolis Fire Department. “We’re dealing with noise on every level.”

Long-term, this exposure may impact their effectiveness at work and overall health, as research shows hearing loss is associated with other health ailments, including cognitive decline and increased risk of hospital staysFor firefighters, hearing can be the difference between life and death. Listening to the radio and hearing transmissions, listening for voices yelling for help and communicating with their crew are essential parts of the job on the scene. Yet, the usage of hearing protection remains low, which may be why 26 percent of firefighters report experiencing ringing in their ears (a condition called tinnitus) occasionally and 14 percent report experiencing it daily.

“I do suffer from tinnitus right now,” said John Fruetel, chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department. “It’s ringing in my ears. They ring 24/7.”

To help protect first responders who are at greater risk of hearing loss due to on-the-job noise exposure, UnitedHealthcare is donating 20,000 silicone-based ear plugs to police and fire departments across the country. This donation is also part of the launch of enhanced hearing health benefits and programs through UnitedHealthcare Hearing.

“I think this donation from UnitedHealthcare increases the duration of peoples’ hearing and reduces the amount of hearing loss that can happen over the course of someone’s career,” said Adam Graves, fire motor operator for the Minneapolis Fire Department.

The new hearing program is a combination of EPIC Hearing Healthcarethe nation’s largest provider of hearing health benefits, and hi HealthInnovations, a direct-to-consumer hearing health care company. It offers more affordable, quality hearing health options, including access to hearing aids at up to 80 percent less than devices sold through traditional channels and a large national network of more than 5,000 credentialed audiologists and hearing health professionals.

To help people better understand the connection between noise exposure and hearing loss, UnitedHealthcare is sharing TV and radio public service announcementsOpens a new window with stations across the country in collaboration with Songs for Sounds, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving access to hearing health care.      

With around 466 million people in the world suffering from hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization, it is evident there needs to be greater emphasis on the importance of hearing protection. Whether it’s loud concerts, sporting events or even rush hour traffic, many people are exposed every day to hazardous noise. Over time, sounds louder than 85 decibels may cause noise-induced hearing loss.

For firefighters, risking their hearing is part of the job to protect their communities. The sirens alone on fire trucks are about 120 decibels. However, if they use silicone ear plugs, they may reduce noise levels by up to 35 decibels, which may help the longevity of their hearing.

“I would hope the strides we’ve made over the last 40 years can save (firefighters’) hearing,” Fruetel said, “so they can enjoy their retirement and still hear their grandkids scream a little bit.”