The year 2020 has been unlike any other. California’s fire season, spanning from August to November, now logs 8,834 fire incidents, 31 fatalities, the loss of 10,488 structures, and an estimated 4,149,345 acres burned—an area larger than the state of Connecticut (CA.gov, 2020 and Wigglesworth, 2020).
Nearly 20,000 firefighters participated in fighting these fires, some coming from as far away as Israel. The largest and most devastating fires began in mid-August when a lightning storm sparked dozens of fires in Northern California. Burning across six counties, the August Complex fire is the largest wildfire in California history (Stelloh, 2020).
Who are these heroes who help protect our homes, businesses, properties and lives from these devastating fires? They are women and men who persevered to make their dream a reality and who completed training in the fire fighter’s academy and passed rigorous requirements addressing one’s physical health and moral character. The bar for admission into this profession is very high.
Amy McClure has been a California firefighter for 10 years. She is also deaf and uses bilateral cochlear implants. Ever since childhood she thought firefighting was the coolest job in the world, but because she had no female firefighters as role models, she did not pursue firefighting as a career. Instead, she majored in cell biology and biochemistry in college and worked as a research scientist for 10 years after college. Yet firefighting continued to pull at her.
As she approached her 30s, she reconsidered a career in firefighting. Encouraged by close friends who were also making career changes, as well as by female firefighters she met, Amy began the process of becoming a firefighter, starting with becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), a hiring requirement. About this time, Amy was diagnosed with hearing loss, which is prevalent in her family. Her maternal grandfather received a cochlear implant in his 70s.
Amy was worried that her hearing loss would prevent her from advancing and achieving her dream job. As she moved through the hiring process, time and again it was the physical exam and the diagnosis of hearing loss that blocked her from advancing to the hiring phase. But then the Lyric hearing aid arrived on the scene. With the extended-wear capabilities and placement deep within the ear canal, she was able to pass the hearing test and was hired.
As her hearing loss progressed and her ability to understand speech decreased, Amy’s hearing and communication challenges became more pronounced. Not one to sit around, Amy researched hearing devices and took advantage of anything that could help. Nonetheless, Amy was stunned when a neurotologist informed her she was a good cochlear implant candidate. She had not yet realized that her hearing loss had progressed enough to consider this intervention. After navigating the insurance process, she received her first side cochlear implant in 2014 and her second side cochlear implant in late 2016.
Amy is now a deaf female firefighter who uses bilateral cochlear implants. Amy’s coworkers are familiar with the basic operation of her devices and know how to effectively get her attention when out on a call. Seventy to eighty percent of the calls to the fire station are medical, and the remaining emergencies include structure fires, wild land fires, vehicle fires and accidents, and spills of hazardous materials.
During her 48-hour shifts, Amy brings all four of her processors with her to the fire station. She sleeps wearing her Advanced Bionics Neptune processors. The Neptune processors are worn on the body and are also fully waterproof. The microphone is located on the headpiece, which connects via a magnet to the implant located superior and posterior to the pinna. A long cable separates and connects the headpiece to the processor.
Amy stated that communication in the engine during a call is the hardest listening environment. When traveling to a call, she wears her Naida on-the-ear processors with a headset that fits over her ears and processors. When she arrives on the scene, she quickly changes to her Neptune processors, wearing them tucked into her sports bra. Once she is all suited up, she increases her volume slightly because the microphone is located underneath her helmet. Amy says it is hard for anyone to hear when fighting structural fires as there is a great deal of environmental noise such as chainsaws and flowing water. Consequently, her team uses visual and tactile communication, yelling, and pointing with short and direct phrases.
This season, Amy spent two weeks fighting the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino County. This fire was started by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used during a gender reveal party. This fire burned over 22,700 acres, and one firefighter was killed fighting the fire. Amy wore her devices non-stop for two solid weeks, placing them in a headband to protect them from dirt and sweat. She also used disposable 675 batteries rather than rechargeable batteries.
Amy is aware that, as in any profession, there are some skills she is better at than others, and she and her team work to accentuate each member’s strengths. For example, she may not be the one to answer the phones, but she is adept at climbing through windows and into attics. Socially, she realizes she misses whispers or under the breath comments and finds she must identify sarcasm visually rather than through voicing cues which cause her to miss out on some joking in the fire station. Amy acknowledges that she needed to accept the new reality that some things are not fixable, like her hearing, to grieve what is lost and move on to focus on what is good and positive.
When I asked Amy what advice she would give to professionals (e.g., audiologists and otolaryngologists/ENTs) that would help us be better at what we do she recommended the following:
- Allow and encourage recipients of hearing technology to practice listening in challenging listening environments and test the settings outside the fitting room to evaluate benefit, as setting hearing aids and cochlear implant programs inside a quiet room does not simulate real-world listening.
- Acknowledge the grieving process of losing hearing. Be supportive and empathetic with our patients to help them transition from grief to acceptance as they learn to adapt to life without normal hearing. No matter how great technology is and how much it allows deaf people to communicate, it is never the same as normal hearing.
I am grateful to Amy for sharing her story and demonstrating, amid all the challenges we faced over the past year, one can persevere with hard work, persistence, dedication, and kindness. Amy is an awesome example of a person who does not allow her disability to end her dreams.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy, position, or opinion of the American Academy of Audiology; further, the Academy does not endorse any products or services mentioned in this article.