JOEH: "Ramp-up" Alert Tones Can Help Reduce Stress on Firefighters

New research published in the
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene
(JOEH) suggests that fire departments can reduce stress on firefighters by signaling emergencies with alarms that gradually increase in intensity instead of sudden, full-volume alerts. The study, “Effect of Station-specific Alerting and Ramp-up Tones on Firefighters’ Alarm Time Heart Rates,” explored whether changing the method by which firefighters are alerted to emergency responses can reduce stress and fatigue. Researchers tracked firefighter heart rates in relation to station alerting systems in addition to firefighters’ perceptions of stress.
Authors James J. MacNeal, David C. Cone, and Christopher L. Wistrom note that of the 97 firefighters killed in the line of duty in 2013, 32 died from overexertion, stress, and related medical issues. In the last five years, heart attacks accounted for two-fifths of on-duty deaths. Previous studies have established that firefighters are more susceptible to heart attacks when responding to emergencies versus non-emergencies.
This study was conducted over three months and involved 42 firefighters at an urban three-station fire department. Firefighters participating in the study wore devices on their wrists that measured their heart rates. Researchers analyzed participants’ heart-rate increases in response to standard alerting—the sudden, high-volume alarms—and to alerts that gradually “ramp up” the audio volume. Study results showed that standard alerting caused a median increase in heart rate of 7 beats per minute (bpm), while the ramp-up tones caused a median increase of 5 bpm. In a post-study survey, participating firefighters indicated a strong preference for the ramp-up tones.
“Ramp-up tones were also perceived as the best alerting method to reduce stress during both the day and overnight,” the authors write. “This study suggests that the manner in which firefighters are alerted does have an influence on their physiologic response to the alarm.”
Read the full
study
. Please contact
Mark Nicas
, PhD, CIH, editor in chief of JOEH, with questions or comments.

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