Friendly Fire Fighters

What do you do when you are endangered by safety?

In an alarming case of non-ballistic “friendly fire,” a warning siren installed on fire trucks has left thousands of firefighters with permanent hearing loss.

New York City fire battalion chief Joseph Nardone retired more than a decade ago. But he can still feel the pain. “The siren was so loud inside the cab that it actually physically hurt,” he said. The aftereffects left Nardone with hearing loss that has made him unable to understand rapid conversation.

Nardone is one of about 4,400 current and former firefighters nationwide who are suing Federal Signal Corp., an Oak Brook, Illinois-based company that makes sirens. The firefighters claim the company didn’t do enough to make the sirens safer for those on fire trucks who have to listen to them nearly every day.

According to the complaint, Federal Signal could have designed them in a way that directs the volume away from areas where firefighters sit in the engines, shielding them from sound blasts that lawyers say reach 120 decibels, roughly equivalent to an ear-splitting concert.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that all worker exposures to noise should be controlled below a level equivalent to 85 decibels for eight hours.

Rick Neitzel, who studies noise and other exposures at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said the standards for safe levels of noise are geared to traditional jobs like manufacturing, not firefighting, where shifts can last for longer and the exposure is intermittent but intense.

An attorney for Federal Signal claimed that making the sirens more directed would have put firefighters and the public at greater risk. Accidents often involve vehicles that hit fire trucks from behind, necessitating a loud noise in all directions, according to the attorney.

Marc Bern, an attorney for the firefighters, dismissed Federal Signal’s claim, saying that Federal Signal could have made the sirens more directional, to warn those in its path, instead of a more generalized blare.

“If you’re driving behind a fire engine and you don’t see a 50-foot-long, red … engine with lights going on and off,” Bern said, “there’s really something wrong.”

There are still open questions about the recommended level appropriate for exposure. Dr. Lawrence Lustig, a hearing-loss expert at Columbia University Medical Center, said people have different levels of susceptibility. But research involving animals seems to imply that noise exposure in early years leads to more rapid age-related hearing loss.

Retired Bronx firefighter Frank Bazzicalupo was exposed early. He joined the FDNY in his 20s and stayed for 25 years. The 61-year-old spent the last decade or so of that career driving fire trucks before retiring in 2002, hearing the sirens blaring overhead.

Today, he finds it difficult to hear in any environment that has background noise. “On a plane is the worst,” he said. “I hear the engines roaring; I can’t hear the person next to me.”

Some of us can remember when it seemed every boy wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Other aspirations have come to compete with the thrill of saving lives and, just maybe, the thrill of danger.

But needlessly adding to the risks is unconscionable.

You don’t have to be a firefighter, though, to put your hearing at risk. Since the 1960s, when booming volume levels became part of the totality of musical experience, millions of eardrums carry the scars of 120 decibels or more of continuous cacophony. It was a blast.

Some of the first responders were the musicians themselves. Those with sufficient matter left between their ears to protect began wearing earplugs at concerts. It looked funny. But if they wanted to hear anything the next day, it was worth it.

Two generations later and we’ve finally learned our lesson.

No, not from the careful, but from the cacophonators.

Our children walk around with devices plugged into their ears at dangerous volume levels. (If you can hear the music from the earbuds at more than a few feet away, it’s almost certainly above the “safe” 85-db level.)

Whatever your taste in Jewish music (and we won’t attempt to define that term) you can be assaulted by it today at simchos.

We don’t use that term “assault” lightly. Infants and children brought to family simchos are being put at amplified risk from 120-decibels of sound-blast.

Calling upon baalei simchah to buck the tide is probably an effort in futility. Nobody wants to be the spoilsport who puts good sense in the way of a good party.

Perhaps the approach of a simchah hall in Israel is a good start. The contract included a clause to keep the music down to 85 decibels. When your guests complain that they are not going deaf. Just say, “Sorry, it’s not me; it’s the contract.”