Protecting Our Protectors An audiologist is on a mission to create the ideal hearing protection for firefighters—and to convince them to use it. In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   June 01, 2015
Protecting Our Protectors
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
Article Information
Hearing Disorders / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   June 01, 2015
Protecting Our Protectors
The ASHA Leader, June 2015, Vol. 20, 22-24. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20062015.22
The ASHA Leader, June 2015, Vol. 20, 22-24. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20062015.22
Name: Kathleen A. Romero, AuD, CCC-A
Title: Owner, Audiology Associates
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sirens scream as the truck roars down the road. Inside a burning building, a woman’s cries are barely audible in the thundering fire.
All of these sounds are common in the lives of firefighters. They have to discern those muffled cries and other subtler sounds like creaks from the shifting building or a fire’s change in intensity, while also subjecting their ears to blaring sirens and other loud and potentially damaging sounds.
That’s why it’s so important to protect their ability to hear, says audiologist Kathleen Romero, who’s made this issue a focus of her work in her Albuquerque-based private audiology practice. She launched her office a few years ago in the usual way—drumming up patients through word-of-mouth. Her surprising specialty developed through one of those word-of-mouth patients.

Even young members of this profession, which relies so heavily on deciphering different noises, experience abnormally high hearing loss.

Her then-receptionist, now partner, is married to a firefighter who referred several of his buddies. Romero quickly learned that even young members of this profession, which relies so heavily on deciphering different noises, experience abnormally high rates of hearing loss.
“I immediately wondered why they weren’t wearing their hearing protection,” Romero says. “They all receive disposable foam ear plugs, which work if they’re actually used, and used correctly, but patients kept telling me they didn’t wear them.”
Excuses ranged from no time to insert them, to dropping and losing them, to needing to be able to hear some noises.
Romero’s partner also mentioned that she was always finding ear plugs in the laundry, so she knew her husband was just shoving them in his pocket and forgetting about them.
“Hearing loss is potentially career-ending for firefighters,” Romero says, “so I started researching a hearing protection solution that’s easily integrated into their routine, like putting on gloves.”
With the wide array of products already on the market, Romero didn’t have to start from scratch. She first used musician-style plugs with interchangeable filters that let in different sound levels. The three patients she asked to try them all reported that the plugs weren’t durable and got caught on their uniforms.
Romero then discovered a custom-fitted, industrial brand of plug called DefendEar. These plugs feature simple convertible protection options. Plugs are attached to a cord via a small pin that can be positioned in one of two places. One position offers a noise reduction rating of 21 decibels. Another increases protection to 28 decibels.
The adjustable cord also clips to a shirt or jacket, keeping the plugs hanging within easy reach.
After about six months of wearing these plugs, Romero’s test patients gave rave reviews. The custom fit makes them easy to insert and they comfortably stay put. The clips attach securely to the collar of a uniform shirt or jacket, and having them dangle in front allows for quick access as soon as alarms sound.
Still, Romero knew the plugs alone weren’t enough. “Motivating and educating them on why they need to always wear them is almost more important than the product itself,” she says.
The audiologist researched and put together a brief—and then even briefer—presentation on why and how firefighters should use ear protection. Now when firefighters come in to have their earmolds made, they also get a 25-minute spiel on using the plugs both on and off duty.
“My test patients were surprised to learn that leisure activities also put them at risk,” Romero says. “Many of them drive four-wheelers or go shooting, for example.”

“Hearing loss is potentially career-ending for firefighters, so I started researching a hearing protection solution that’s easily integrated into their routine.”

Romero next approached a local fire chief about instituting these high-quality plugs for the entire department. The chief initially resisted, explaining that their current equipment met requirements, but Romero persisted.
“I gave him stats on firefighters and hearing loss,” she says, “and I talked about how several of his men were already having a better experience with these plugs.
“He got on board, ordering the plugs for his whole department,” Romero says, “and now he’s one of my biggest advocates.”
The chief now shares the benefits of the plugs with other departments and even talked about them at a state fire chiefs’ meeting. Two more departments have signed on, with another in the works.
Romero plans to continue modifying the plugs to streamline cord access and to expand beyond firefighters. One county is looking into having her modify similar plugs for their police, sanitation and construction departments.
And the audiologist is looking into military connections. A friend serving in Afghanistan recently sent a picture of himself next to a huge mortar gun. “I asked him what kind of ear protection he uses,” Romero says, “and he replied: ‘Don’t you see my hands covering my ears?’”
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June 2015
Volume 20, Issue 6