Chief Warrant Officer 3 Wayne Bush is no stranger to the challenge of conducting inspections amid the high-decibel clatter of an engine room.
That’s why Bush, a marine inspector in Key West, Florida, was impressed when he got to use the new electronic hearing protection earbuds the Coast Guard is evaluating. The earbuds did more than effectively block out background noise in loud spaces with machinery. “Most of the time,” said Bush, “I was able to carry on a normal conversation with the person next to me.”
These adaptive earbuds lower the levels of harmful frequencies, while amplifying speech. They’re part of the Coast Guard’s ongoing effort to provide tools that promote its members’ safety. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate and the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center (RDC) established the Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC) to investigate off-the-shelf solutions to fill mission gaps. Thanks to STIC, what started as a test of a handful of earbuds at Sectors Boston and Long Island Sound has expanded into at least five sectors and a long-term evaluation.
It’s a timely intervention. A 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs report found that tinnitus was the most common medical claim filed by military members, while hearing loss came in at number two. Cutters and small boats expose operators to 85 decibels when in operation, but most members aren’t in these environments consistently without hearing protection for the eight hours it would take to cause damage.
Sound levels in engine rooms, on the other hand, can reach 105 decibels or higher. Once at that level, even being in a space for a few minutes can lead to acute hearing loss, putting personnel at risk during boardings or inspections.
Currently, the service uses removable foam ear plugs and sets of large earmuffs. Both can mute noise, but in doing so, they also make it difficult to hear regular conversation. “I’ve seen those (ear plugs) fail a dozen times,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class John Northup, a marine science technician in Sector Boston, who led the search for a better option.
Most members now wear the bulky earmuffs during boardings, Northup noted. But they often face a trade-off. As one enforcement specialist at Sector Boston, described it: “Teams in the engine room have two choices: wear the earmuffs and lose situational awareness and radio comms, or go without to maintain comms with the team at the cost of damaging your hearing.”
Northup’s search for an improvement eventually turned up electronic earbuds made by OTTO and 3M. The sets were similar in function and price ($400 a pair) and could last up to 16 hours before needing to be recharged. In addition, the technology is there to incorporate radio communications in the future to improve situational awareness and safety.
That’s when the RDC STIC stepped in to assist. John McLeod, a branch member with experience working in marine inspection, investigated what was available for comparative testing. Then STIC provided a small amount of funding to expand evaluations of the technology. Based on limited user feedback, researchers concluded the OTTO version, which includes a charger within its waterproof case, was the preferred earbud option. Northup’s work earned him an honorable mention in the 2021 Captain Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Awards.
In addition to marine inspectors and members of the maritime enforcement team using them, the earbuds have been tested at a shooting range at Station Point Allerton in Hull, Massachusetts. There, shooters wearing them were able to maintain proper hearing protection levels and talk to each other, according to Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sayles. “Shooters could also maintain a proper cheek weld with rifles and shotguns,” he added. “That’s something that can be very hard to do with over-the-ear hearing protection.”
The earbuds sometimes appear to be so good at muting dangerous noise, Northup noted, that members wearing them for the first time may feel like they’re not being protected. For that reason, there is an initial adjustment period for wearers to get used to them.
At the moment, approximately 50 of these earbud sets are being tested throughout the Coast Guard. Northup’s goal is to continue to get the word out. “We want to get these earbuds in the ears of all operators who are experiencing over 105 decibels,” he said. “The thing about hearing is once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.”