Firefighting is a great career and the job attracts people from all walks of life and with very different levels of ability. However, you may be wondering whether it’s possible to work as a firefighter if you have problems with your hearing.
You may be able to be a firefighter with hearing loss, depending on how severe the hearing loss is. There are some hearing/ear conditions that may impact your ability to become a firefighter. You must meet the hearing requirements dictated by NFPA Standard 1582.
You can gauge the likelihood of being accepted into a fire service job by reviewing the firefighter hearing standards.
Firefighter Hearing Standards
Note: None of this information is medical advice. We are simply breaking down the medical standards for firefighters as found in NFPA 1582.
The National Fire Protection Association has a set of published standards for firefighters and it lays out two sets of criteria which can lead to the disqualification of a potential firefighter from getting hired.
The first of these are Category A conditions. If you suffer from a Category A condition, then you are likely to be immediately be prevented from taking up a firefighter’s job. This is because these conditions have been demonstrated to put the safety of both the individual and their firefighting peers at risk.
While it’s true that firefighting is a dangerous profession – the objective is to try and ensure that every firefighter survives every shift without injury or worse. Category A conditions make it unlikely that this objective would be achieved.
The second set are Category B conditions. These are conditions that might lead to the individual being a risk to their own safety or the safety of others but equally, they might not. This, of course, depends on the level of severity/impairment.
If you have a Category B condition, then you will need an examination from a health professional that is trusted by your potential employer to determine whether or not you are suited to firefighting.
With Category B conditions, you will also need to show that you can perform all 14 essential job functions of a firefighter, as described by NFPA 1582. Read: Can You Be a Firefighter with a Disability? for more information about this standard and a list of all 14 essential job tasks.
Category A Conditions For Firefighter’s Hearing
As we’ve already seen – someone with problems that are classed as Category A will not be able to work as a firefighter. There are only 3 category A hearing-related conditions:
- Vertigo/impaired balance. You may not be aware of it, but your ears are linked to your balance system and severe hearing impairments can damage the ability of an individual to balance. If your balance is off or you have such severe vertigo that you cannot tandem gait walk effectively – the impairment is considered to be a Category A impairment.
A tandem gait walk is a specific style of walking where you touch the heel of the front foot with the toes of the back foot as you take each step. It’s the kind of walk that they ask people to perform when they’re suspected of a DUI.
- A hearing test/audiometric test. You must take out your hearing aids for the test. Then they will examine the ear which has the strongest level of hearing and it must not have hearing loss that is worse than 40 dB at 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz.
It is important that if you undertake this test yourself – that the equipment used to conduct the test adheres to and has been calibrated to the Audiometric Device Testing standard ANSI Z24.5. If it hasn’t the result you get may be a false positive.
- Any ear/hearing condition that causes you to be unable to safely perform any of the essential duties that will be expected of you as a firefighter.
This catch all condition allows the standard to be very clear that it’s designed to protect your safety and the safety of your fellow firefighters. This will be up to each fire department and their doctor to decide which conditions they will allow.
Category B Conditions For Firefighter’s Hearing
There are 9 hearing conditions that may or may not disqualify you as a firefighter. The only way to determine accurately if this is the case is to apply for a position and to have them tested by the fire department you are applying to work with.
It is not possible to give you a diagnosis remotely on this and even your own physician may not be correct in any advice that they give (though it can’t hurt to ask).
These conditions are:
- A hearing test/audiometric test. This is a similar test as to Condition A but it applies to both ears and not just the strongest ear. Hearing loss that is worse than 40 dB at 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz in either ear may be problematic. Again, the test will need to be taken on a properly calibrated device to be fully reliable.
- Agenesis or traumatic deformity of the auricle. This refers to the outside of the ear (the visible part). Agenesis is being born without an ear. Traumatic deformity is (as it sounds) the potential severing or mutilation of the ear through trauma. This can interfere with the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.
- Any surgical procedure that has been used to correct/improve any hearing or other condition of the ear. Again, this is a catch-all position that allows for the examination of a wide range of possible surgical procedures. This is mainly because it is impossible for the fire service to predict all surgical procedures and their outcomes.
- Atresia, stenosis or a tumor of the auditory canal. Atresia is a condition in which the ear canal is unusually narrow or completely absent. Stenosis is a condition by which the ear canal was once of the usual width but has been narrowing for some underlying reason. A tumor in the ear canal has the potential to block the ear canal.
- External otitis, that is recurrent. Otitis is simply an infection or inflammation of the ear. In most cases, this is not going to be a cause for disqualification for working as a firefighter. However, if the problem is recurrent and severe – it might interfere with your ability to work safely.
- Mastoiditis or surgical deformity of the mastoid. The mastoid is the bone behind the ear. When it becomes infected that is mastoiditis. It is also possibly caused by a surgical issue. This is a very serious infection that can cause large amounts of permanent damage. It is typically caused by failing to treat an ear infection.
- Meniere’s disease, labyrinthitis or tinnitus. Meniere’s disease is a problem that affects the inner ear and which triggers vertigo and dizzy spells – it also leads to hearing loss. Labyrinthitis is an infection of the inner ear which can lead to similar symptoms. Tinnitus is a buzzing sound or ringing sound, typically, which is heard constantly or for extended periods of time and which might prevent you from hearing something else.
- Otitis media that is recurrent. These are a group of different problems that cause inflammatory diseases in the middle ear. Most of the time they are treatable and do not cause any major long-term difficulties. However, some people are prone to recurrent infection and this can cause permanent difficulties for the afflicted individual.
- Unequal hearing loss. Unequal hearing loss is when you lose hearing in one ear but not the other or when you lose hearing in both ears, but one is much more severely affected than another. It is estimated that millions of Americans suffer from unequal hearing loss without being fully aware of it.
Again, we’d like to remind you at this point that suffering from any of the conditions on the Category B list does not automatically disqualify you from working as a firefighter. It is something that they would need to examine during the recruitment process.
The ultimate decision as to whether any medical condition, including those related to hearing impairment or hearing loss, is severe enough to prevent you from working as a firefighter is down to the medical staff appointed by that individual fire department.
That means for the majority of people, the only sure way to tell if you can or can’t work as a firefighter is to apply and to go through the full recruitment process.
For more information about NFPA 1582, watch this video:
Can you be a firefighter with hearing loss/hearing aids? Yes, depending on the severity of your hearing loss. However, if you suffer from a Category A hearing loss condition you cannot work as a firefighter and if you suffer from a category B condition you may or may not be allowed to work depending on your physical exam and ability to perform all the essential job tasks.
At all times, these rules are not designed to discriminate against people with hearing problems but rather to protect them and other firefighters in dangerous situations.