Distress Alert Signals from Personal Alert Safety Systems Devices Do Not Trigger Physiological Responses

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Donald R. Adams, Sr.

Osceola County Emergency Services Department is in an urban and rural county with a diverse community that has experienced tremendous growth during the last 5 years, as well as an increase in both emergency and non-emergency incidents. The problem noted with the increase of incidents Osceola County has experienced, is that a number of firefighters, with no apparent sensory deficits do not respond immediately to the distress signal of the Personal Alert Safety Systems device when engaged in heavy fire suppression activities, search and rescue activities, or both. The purpose of this research project was to investigate internal conditions and their relationships, as well as the external forces and their impact on firefighter's immediate response to the activation of PASS device's distress alert signals.

This project employed evaluative and historical research methods to (a) determine if firefighters are able to distinguish the numerous distinct events and sounds as a human listener from busy fire ground ambience, (b) determine if firefighters' responses are becoming conditioned or are we shaping their behavior regarding the auditory stimuli of the distress alert tone from Personal Alert Safety Systems devices, (c) determine if physiological impairments associated with the firefighter's age affect stimuli reaching the auditory system, (d) determine some of the limitations and deficiencies of the Personal Alert Safety Systems devices, (e) determine what are some of the advantages of the Personal Alert Safety Systems devices, and (f) determine if polygraph apparatus that evaluates physiological biofeedback are useful for data acquisition of firefighters' responses to the distress tone of Personal Alert Safety Systems devices.

The procedure used involved a review of academic and trade journal publications, interviews, questionnaires, and a clinical study. A comparison of literature reviews of Personal Alerting Safety Systems devices, acoustic information, hearing impairments, conditioning stimulus, and stress related physiological responses was made. In addition, interviews and a questionnaire were used to obtain firefighters' and chief officers' perceptions of their response to the activation of the Personal Alert Safety Systems device which they have seen on the fire ground, heard on the fire ground, or both.

The major findings of this research were that firefighters, as well as non-firefighters do not have a physiological response to the distress signal from the Personal Alert Safety Systems device. Additionally, the research indicated that firefighters appear to be conditioned to perceive the distress tone as a false activation and not that of urgency, as well as to not respond immediately to the distress signal unless other visual or auditory information is available. The recommendation resulting from this research indicated a need for computer-based physiology feedback to determine which Personal Alert Safety Systems device cause a response in order for firefighters to respond immediately to the distress signal of jeopardized firefighters. However, it was also noted that Osceola County, as well as many of the municipalities in Central Florida, do not have the physical budget to purchase computer-based assessment to determine which type of distress alerting signal causes a physiological response when heard. Therefore, it was recommended that another agency, such as the National Fire Academy or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), do further research using computer-based assessment to evaluate the physiological response of firefighters to the distress signal of Personal Alert Safety Systems devices.