Article Archive
Big Ear
Ear protection for firefighters in development
Volume 24, No. 1

When most emergency responders talk about interoperability, they are usually referring to multiple radio users operating on different frequency bands. Captain Bill Salmon of the Poudre Fire Authority (PFA) in Fort Collins, CO, says that interoperability is even more basic than that.

“At the fire or emergency scene there is an awful lot of noise that gets in the way of being able to communicate,” Salmon said. “Many NIOSH line of duty death reports usually have communication at the heart of the problem.”

Big Ear Inc. of Colorado Springs, CO, specialist in hearing health technology, is working on a solution. Using Big Ear custom-molded earpieces, the firefighter receives radio traffic through his left ear at low volume. Meanwhile, the right ear is protected by a noise filter which limits noise above 85 decibels.

In 2007, the fire authority conducted a hearing enhancement and protection study that focused on battalion chiefs, captains and driver/operators. Today, all 151 line personnel with the Poudre Fire Authority wear this earpiece combination.

“So what we have is hearing protection that most of the guys are using for non-emergencies and during training,” Salmon said. “That gives them coverage most of the time.”

Ear protection in industry is nothing new. With regard to extending that protection to firefighters, Big Ear innovator and CEO Glenn Hood sites the following statistics:

• According to OSHA, 5.2 million American workers in the manufacturing industries are exposed to average noise levels of 85 decibels (dB) - the level considered hazardous.

• One million workers of these manufacturing industry workers have sustained job-related hearing loss, and about one-half million of these have moderate-to-severe hearing impairments.

• More than 9 million American workers are exposed to noise levels above 85 dB when all noisy jobs are considered. These include, but are not limited to, the military, mining, construction and transportation industries.

That list of noisy jobs should include fire fighting, Hood said.

“Firefighters are losing communication and can’t understand a sent message,” Hood said. “Noise gets loud, sirens go off. The guy operating the pump can’t hear above the pump noise. The guys fighting the fire can’t hear the radios on their shoulder.”

Big Ear, Inc. was born in pain – literally! Brothers Glenn and Mark Hood were looking for a way to reduce the pain experienced from wind noise when they rode their motorcycles across country. Nothing worked till they saw an early prototype of what was to eventually become Big Ear, Inc.

When they saw this early use of silicone to make custom fit ear plugs, they realized its potential and decided to find a way to help others solve their same problem – noise induced hearing loss. Glenn, suffering from Tinnitus, already knew the strain of having constant noise in his head so wanted to help others avoid such problems.

Big Ear, Inc. became a reality in 2003. As a consequence of their hearing conservation efforts for motorcyclists, Big Ear, Inc. now enjoys a national reputation for quality and exemplary customer service as described frequently in the many product reviews that have appeared in major trade publications.

Big Ear, Inc. has adapters for customized applications for every major Bluetooth headset model; is developing a Bluetooth product that will convert any Bluetooth application to a customized solution (patent pending); introduced new products for gamers and pilots; working on an electronic compression circuit for shooters, military, swat and security forces that includes a Bluetooth “no mike” application that can be modified to the wearer’s specific preferences and has a custom fit.

Big Ear, Inc. is also one of the leaders on the forefront of hearing health technologies. In 2007, Big Ear, Inc. incorporated International Hearing Conservation Awareness Foundation, as a not-for-profit organization for the purpose of furthering noise induced hearing loss education supported by a research grant from industry and government.

Testing done the Poudre Fire Authority during live fire training exercises show that custom molded earpieces significantly increased the ability to hear. Salmon said the research extends to how the firefighters process the information and, in turn, communicate with other crew members.

“It’s a very complex process,” he said. “The communication issues we are working through involve many human factors. You have to track how the firefighters react in a multi-stimulus situation, performing at the expected task levels while managing communications with other members of the team.”

The Poudre Fire Authority training delivery model includes using six facilitator companies to deliver training to the other 30 companies. The curriculum includes properly fitting Big Ear earpieces, interlacing the components within the PPE, responding to emergencies with earpieces in place and managing cognitive work loads once firefighters can consistently hear their radios.

While fire scene communications are the focus for review, the required final practical evolutions also include simulated fire conditions at an acquired structure, where positive-pressure attack and mayday evolutions are involved. No firefighter receives their components without this training and practical exercise.

“Fire responders have tolerated an unacceptable level of sounds and alarms that make it difficult to use their lapel mikes and radios at the scene,” Salmon said. “Communications become unreliable. But using this ear piece we have the ability to communicate while reducing the redundancy of repetitive radio traffic. People realize they don’t have to shout to be heard.”

Salmon’s PFA team and Big Ear are still working out technical bugs with the new system. Big Ear has been meeting with equipment designers over the past six month to reach a standardized design that will allow the Big Ear system to connect to any brand or model of radio that various departments are using.

Another issue to resolve is that in order for Big Ear to reach maximum effectiveness each firefighter has to be fitted for custom-made earpieces. Ear buds are simply not as effective, although they can be used on a temporary basis, Hood said.

“Audiologists have years of extensive training to do this,” he said. “Departments don’t want to do ear impressions on each firefighter at $50 apiece. What we propose is training fire department personnel to make ear impressions.”

As a comparison, OSHA requires fit testing of the facepiece of self-contained breathing apparatus. Many fire departments today perform the required fit testing procedure themselves rather than bring in expensive outside experts.

More research is the only solution, Hood said.

“Firefighters have tolerated this situation because nobody has wanted to step up and do the research,” Hood said. “In doing this research, we have accepted the challenge to make this happen.”

For more information about Big Ear, Inc., call (866)661-2041 or visit Visit Big Ears in Booth 41 of the IFW Conference & Exposition in March.


P: (979) 690-7559
F: (979) 690-7562

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