I received an email the other day from a candidate asking if he can be a firefighter and be deaf or hard of hearing. It was the first time I had ever received a question like that, so I thought it’d be a good topic to write about.
So, can I be a firefighter and be deaf?
It is possible, but this depends on many factors including your specific condition and ability to communicate. While there may not be specific restrictions disqualifying you from the job, you may have a difficult passing a medical assessment. That said, every fire department is different and may make exceptions depending on your specific situation. It is best to consult with them.
Anyone that has ever been in a fire knows how disorientating it can be and how much the incident can be an assault on the sense. Now consider what it must be like for people that are deaf or hard of hearing.
What if you can’t hear the sirens and alarms in the same way? Or, what if your hearing impairments mean that the noises become distorted and difficult to separate from the voices of those in peril, or those trying to help?
That along with the poor visibility and sounds can be overwhelming. Yet, there are many people that are deaf or that struggle with their hearing that want to play their part in the fire service.
In this article, I will to talk about some of the medical conditions that physicians need to know about in your pre-employment medical exam.
From there, I want to talk more about what it can be like to work in the fire service with a hearing impairment. This means looking at the limitations but also some of the positive stories about the roles that you can still perform.
What conditions could disqualify you from becoming a firefighter?
There are Category A conditions in a firefighter medical exam that lead to disqualification. These include severe, unaided hearing loss, chronic vertigo and other conditions that affect health and safety.
However, more conditions are Category B, which means that you could still find a job in the fire service if you are deemed fit enough. These include:
- Atresia, stenosis or a form of tumor obstructing the ear canal
- Any traumatic deformity of the auricle
- Controlled Ménière’s syndrome, labyrinthitis or tinnitus
- Hearing loss that would not impact upon health and safety or effectiveness
So, how much of a disability is it to have hearing loss or poor hearing in the fire service?
To be honest, if you can still find ways to communicate with your crew and your lieutenant on-scene, and at the station, it doesn’t have to be that big an issue. There are firefighters with hearing issues that have hearing aids or implants that will use visual cues and hand signals with their crew.
There is also the fact that it has become even easier for those that are hearing impaired to work in the fire service since the radios have gone digital and have far less interference.
Whenever they are required to be on-call for duty, they can have a vibrating pager on hand to alert them without the need to listen out for a call.
However, there are issues here for those that are reliant on lip-reading. This isn’t possible in scenes with poor visibility and when other crew members have their masks on.
Working as a cohesive team with strong communication and inclusion is essential.
The problem may depend on how willing others are to adapt and work with deaf firefighters as much as the skills and attitude of the candidate themselves.
That said, many deaf firefighters that pass the physical and prove that they have hearing that is functional enough for the role can still face more of a struggle.
For example, some have had to try and prove themselves a little more in a means of compensation. They want to prove that they can be just as skilled and knowledgeable with all methods of operations even if they can’t hear as well.
You will probably find that some tasks and roles are prohibited for a deaf firefighter in your department.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some limitations in what the fire department will allow their deaf firefighters to do. Most restrictions will occur in dangerous situations and building fires.
Deaf firefighters often won’t be the ones to knock down the doors and be the first in the fire just in case everything is too overwhelming, and they can’t handle all of the sensory information.
But that doesn’t mean that they can’t stay behind on the truck to help with the hoses and equipment. They can also help with the clean-up and general assistance to families in need.
Sometimes, departments will also be inclined to restrict hearing impaired firefighters from driving the engines to the scene because there is so much to concentrate on.
Radio communication is so essential here under the sound of the siren that deaf firefighter can’t afford to miss a transmission or mishear an instruction.
Another way that you can help is to build on your training in other specialist areas that don’t require someone with perfect hearing. There are deaf firefighters that have taken their EMT examinations and gone on to use adapted equipment to perform essential first aid.
This takes first responders away from the chaos of the fire and into a role where they can help individuals in other ways.
Volunteering as a deaf firefighter
One of the best options for all those that are deaf or hearing impaired and want to join the fire service is to look into becoming a volunteer firefighter.
This can be a helpful stepping stone if a career position is too far out of reach. Smaller volunteer or combination departments may be able to make better use of the skills and talents of deaf candidates.
It all depends on attitude too. Are you there to be the one on the front line involved in the most heroic actions or do you want to be a team player, helping out your community where you can?
Finally, it won’t be easy to become a career firefighter as a deaf candidate because of the restrictions in the job, the physical tests and the attitudes of those on the department.
Some may simply not be comfortable hiring someone with this disability.
However, if you are prepared to train hard, work to the same standards and adapt where necessary, you can fit in and play your part. Contact your local department and let them know about your situation.
See what they say about their own viewpoints and restrictions. Alternatively, start at the bottom as a volunteer, prove your worth as a team player and build from there.
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