'Dr. Stress' turns down the volume at firehouse

City hopes 'cardiac-friendly' approach brings relentless blare of alarms under control


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When "Dr. Stress" first arrived at Homewood's Engine House 17 to help its firefighters cope with stress, he encountered a barrage of it.

Bruce S. Rabin, the University of Pittsburgh stress-management guru, said he was "overwhelmed by the chronic amount of loud noise coming from the speakers throughout the firehouse."

The blare was coming from chatter and alarms sounding through the engine-house radio system involving fire, accident and medical calls throughout the city, which has 30 firehouses, with an attendant chorus of alarms. At that time, none of the information or alarms involved the Homewood station.

"The messages being conveyed were important but it was obvious that not all of the messages needed to be heard at every firehouse," Dr. Rabin said. "There are many studies showing that loud noise can be a stressor, interfere with sleep, and cause an elevation of the stress hormones with resultant negative effects on health."

Dr. Rabin took action to extinguish the firehouse blaze of stress.

He discussed the problem with John Gardell, 35, of Banksville -- the very lieutenant at the Homewood station and recording secretary for Pittsburgh Firefighters Local 1 who arranged for Dr. Rabin to teach a stress-management course to all city firefighters.

"A reduction in noise would be associated with better health for the firefighters," Dr. Rabin told him. "This should lead to lower health-care costs and more time on the job, both positive effects."

That discussion prompted Lt. Gardell and Local 1 to recruit Firehouse Automation LLC, whose co-founder, Jeff Bruns, has 10 years of experience in a Maryland fire department outside of Washington, D.C. Mr. Bruns has been busy for months with a pilot project he's doing for free to install a "cardiac-friendly" automated dispatch and 911-integrated fire station alerting system to the firehouses in Homewood, South Side and Oakland. The system is designed to reduce stress by dispatching information only to responding stations, while improving response times by providing emergency information faster and more efficiently.

His hope, he said, is for the pilot project to prove its value to firefighters and city residents and convince city officials to install the system in all 30 city firehouses. The system provides station alerting, automated sign boards and lighting, early incident notification, computer services and software, mapping and other technology to assist first responders.

"In Maryland, we had a lot of dated hardware, including ringing bells, to notify personnel," Mr. Bruns said. "At 3 a.m., you would be awakened out of a dead sleep by a 90-decibel bell ringing just like that. That's quite a bit of stress. From a deep sleep to 90 decibels explains why there are cardiac events in the fire service."

The new "cardiac-friendly" alarm, which he describes as an alert, begins with a low-decibel hum that takes eight to 10 seconds to build to full volume. Lights brighten gradually. He said it's an effective way to gradually introduce sound and lighting in a minimally stressful way.

"Firefighters are not going to sleep through it once it goes through the entire process," Mr. Bruns said. "It takes a firefighter a while to clear the cobwebs."

That's to say, the alarm doesn't have to be a sudden shrill.

The system has been operating in the three firehouses for two months with a computer system that plucks pertinent 911 information from the private cloud-based computer network that Firehouse Automation established for the city and provides that information to the firehouse as quickly as a dispatcher can type it, providing a real-time flow of information from the dispatch center. The system works in the background without dispatcher activation. The system already has cut 30 to 105 seconds off initial notification so responders can hasten their response, Mr. Bruns said, noting every second counts in response time.

That information scrolls across a message display, similar to a Wall Street ticker, and can be heard through speakers in the fire station.

Fire companies usually are first responders to fires, accidents and medical emergencies. Rather than require them to remember addresses and crossing streets while rushing to the scene, the system will include a "rip and run" method in which firefighters can tear a ribbon of paper, similar to a receipt, from a printer that contains all the available information as they head out the door.

With that advantage, Mr. Bruns said, the Homewood firefighters have arrived first on the scene, including once to a bedroom fire, even though they were the backup unit.

"We're confident it will exceed expectations," Mr. Bruns said of the pilot project.

City Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Cook said he's only seen the system work in a test run but said the Homewood firefighters enjoy using the new system and have expressed "faith and confidence that it will improve their ability to serve the community."

"We're looking at it from the standpoint that it reduces the stress of listening all day to radio chatter during a 24-hour shift and picking out of all the chatter specific to their own engine house. The parallel benefit is that it improves response time and information flow for individual responses so we can make decisions earlier."

But funding is necessary to install the system citywide.

"We are targeting to make a decision -- not purchasing, but wrapping up the evaluation -- by the end of the year," Assistant Chief Cook said.

Firefighters expressed surprise at how the shrill alarms and constant radio chatter could be affecting their health.

"We overlooked the amount of stress on individuals when a call comes in," Lt. Gardell said. "Firefighters take it for granted as part of the daily operations. But it does affect your well-being later in life, and it does affect you on a daily basis."

Lt. Gardell said firefighters already have fast response times throughout the city but any technology "we can add to better serve the citizens we welcome."

Many of the 570 city firefighters work overtime, including 36- and even 48-hour shifts on occasion, because 652 full-time positions are needed to staff 30 firehouses every day around the clock. Long hours boost already elevated stress levels of the job.

Controlling stress looms even more important for Local 1, Lt. Gardell said, considering that the average age of death for retired firefighters is only 703/4 years. The Social Security Administration, based on U.S. Census data, indicates the average life expectancy for men, if you average the rate for men 20 and 65 years of age, calculates to be more than 79 years. The data also reveal that men currently at retirement age, on average, have a life expectancy of 82.

In addition to stress, firefighters face health risks from smoke and chemical exposure and the obvious risk of injury or death every time they respond to a call or fight a fire.

Dr. Rabin said the firefighters' response to the alarm he sounded is showing early success.

"With that motivation, John [Gardell] and his colleagues did a fabulous job of bringing in the silent alarm system to increase efficiency and the health of the firefighters," he said.

neigh_city - health

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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