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The Hearing Impaired Firefighter

Sunday, April 26th, 2015, 10:26 am

If you ask any firefighter what is one of the biggest obstacles in the fire service, they will say it is communication. Picture yourself at a fire call, sirens blaring, lights flashing, loud engines running and people blaring out instructions. Most people of normal hearing are able to block out some of these sounds and narrow their attention to the one or more on which they need to concentrate.

Now imagine you are unable to block out any of the sounds and the roar of everything comes pouring into your brain. That’s what it’s like for firefighters who are hearing impaired, unable to tune anything out. “It’s like having a speaker in your head,” said Jimbo Bonesteel. “It’s hard for a person of normal hearing to hear on the fireground, but there’s an even larger challenge in the fire service for those with hearing impairments,” said David Meservey. Both Bonesteel and Meservey are hearing impaired firefighters in New York State.

Jimbo Bonesteel, is a Lieutenant at West Sand Lake Fire Department, and recently held a seminar at his department to explain to his fellow firefighters how he and they can communicate better at a fire scene. Bonsteel lost his hearing at birth. He was fitted with hearing aids until he succumbed to nerve deafness in 2011 and the complete loss of hearing in his right ear. Five years ago, Bonesteel was fitted with a cochlear implant which aides him in hearing. He has been in the fire service for 29 years both in Nebraska and New York, and continues his education in hopes of becoming a fire instructor.

“Every day is a challenge for someone who is hearing impaired,” said Meservey, who has been in the fire service for 26 years and an EMT for 12 years. He is presently a firefighter with Verdoy Fire Department. Meservey’s hearing loss became noticeable at age nine. He was given hearing aids and began taking speech therapy. He received his first implant in 1997 and his second in 2007. From that point, he has spent endless hours training with the members of his department to show them exactly what he can do and what his limitations are. In 2004 he became an interior firefighter, and was elected lieutenant in 2009; he presently holds the office of President.

“Communication is important in the fire service, not just for people like me but for everyone,” said Bonesteel. “Call me Jimbo, not Jim or Jimmy, because I can’t differentiate between those names, and I could be hearing Kim or Tim or Timmy. I’m not ignoring you or mad at you when I don’t turn around. It’s because I can’t hear you,” he said. “We all use hand signals every day without even realizing it,” explained Bonesteel to the members of his department. He asked members what hand signals they would use to express certain words or phrases. “That’s exactly how you would communicate your needs to me.” Simple hand gestures that we use daily to communicate — pointing to your wrist for the time, motioning to your mouth for something to drink – are all hand gestures which can be used universally between those of normal and impaired hearing. West Sand Lake’s members were appreciative of the opportunity to better understand how they can communicate with Bonesteel while on a fire call. Learning and using some of the hand signals would greatly open up their ability to work on a fire scene with him.

Both Bonesteel and Meservey also have the skill of lip reading. “Just be careful what you say,” joked Bonesteel, “I may not be within hearing distance but I can read what you’re saying.”

Members of Meservey’s department know how and what they need to do communicate with him while on a fire scene. “I know to stay within physical contact with him and if I need to communicate with him, I tap him on the shoulder and turn him around so he can see me directly,” said one member.

Fire departments also have an obligation to assist hearing impaired firefighters. Both West Sand Lake and Verdoy have been able to compare the needs of their members and offer suggestions on equipment that would enable their members to work more efficiently. West Sand Lake was able to purchase a lighter helmet with a shorter back so that the helmet sits more stably on Bonesteel’s head and doesn’t rest on his implant. Verdoy purchased an H-web Scott Mask and a lighter helmet for Meservey. The H-webbing on the mask enables him to wear it without knocking off his implants. When the town’s radios went digital it also helped Meservey to pick up transmissions without static interference on his implants.

When asked what message he would like to impart to other firefighters and the fire service, Bonesteel answered, “Don’t judge me just because I can’t hear and assume I can’t do the job. We are one family, one department, one brother/sisterhood, we are here to help each other out.” Meservey said, “We are all here to do the same job, to protect life and property. Some people may feel uneasy about working with a hearing impaired firefighter, but be willing to give them a chance.”

Both men would like to get the message about the plight of hearing impaired firefighters so that people aren’t afraid to work with them. Meservey’s message to other people who are hearing impaired but are afraid to join the fire service? “It wasn’t easy, but if you have mature people behind you who want to see you become successful, the sky is the limit.”

– Fire News story and photos by Lori Washburn

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