Noise-induced hearing loss, which is often both permanent and preventable, can directly affect a Soldier’s ability to perform the mission. Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most prevalent injuries among military and civilian personnel, representing a significant portion of the annual cost for service-connected disability compensation.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that tinnitus (ringing or other noises in the ears) and hearing loss are two of the most common service-connected disabilities. Approximately $1.1 billion in disability compensation was paid for these two conditions in fiscal year 2009, and this number continues to rise, as Soldiers and civilians support noise-hazardous operations unprotected.
The primary goal of the Army Medical Department is force health protection. The goal of the Project Manager-Soldier Warrior (PM SWAR), Product Director Soldier Systems & Integration (PD SS&I), Tactical Communications and Protective Systems (TCAPS) is twofold: maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Soldier and preventing hearing loss.
Two squads of Soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team – one from 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, and one from 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment – participated in new equipment testing at Fort Benning, Ga., with the assistance of two Army audiologists , the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, and PD SS&I.
“The (participation) of the Soldiers utilized in this evaluation is absolutely essential so that the acquisition community can field the proper equipment that will be used by the Soldiers in the field,” said Maj. Jack Moore, assistant product manager for TCAPS. “Without their input, early and often, we could potentially field a piece of equipment that is not acceptable to them and, thus, it would not be used, and that is not acceptable.”
The Maneuver Center of Excellence is the operational user for TCAPS and provides the requirement for TCAPS program of record. Their requirement, coupled with the input from the medical community, specifically the Army Hearing Program Office, U.S. Army Public Health Command, defined the speech intelligibility, distance and direction requirements, and the medical protection requirements for the systems being evaluated.
The new equipment these Soldiers evaluated includes systems with active filters that protect hearing in the combat environment, while enabling the user to hear the surrounding environment and communication systems (e.g., intercom, radios, etc.). This advanced technology, integrated with hearing protection, is one Army medicine and Army acquisition future effort to ensure Soldier mission effectiveness. TCAPS is a hearing protection device that actively adapts to audio conditions, so it allows auditory awareness of the operational environment, but also provides protection from the noise hazards in the environment.
The sense of hearing is critical to today’s war fighter. Enemies are often heard before they are seen. Ask any infantryman, and he will tell you that, by sound alone, he is able to identify a weapon system, whether it is friend or foe, and when he can expect it in his area of operation. Hearing is on 24/7, 360 degrees, moving through and around barriers, providing up to 80 percent of our situational awareness, especially when our vision is compromised (e.g., at night, around buildings, in sand storms, etc.).
On today’s technologically advanced battlefield, Soldiers must be prepared to communicate effectively and perform optimally, which requires essentially normal hearing sensitivity. Good hearing is a proven combat multiplier, preserving the lethality and survivability of the war fighter.
“I never wore hearing protection during deployment,” said Spec. Ty Graham from C Company, 1-87 Infantry. Other members of his squad agreed.
“I provide hearing health care for patients in my office, every day, who reiterate this message,” said Capt. Jennifer Noetzel, chief of the Fort Drum Hearing Program, Preventive Medicine Department. “They feel that when they have hearing protection in their ears, it takes away from their ability to know their environment and puts them at a disadvantage. They do not want to compromise the mission by using traditional hearing protection, which Soldiers perceive as reducing their survivability.
“Most of the Soldiers involved in this training exercise have never used TCAPS before, so (they) were unaware of the benefits provided,” Noetzel added.
In 2008, the Maneuver Battle Lab was asked to determine the effectiveness and suitability of the TCAPS candidates. Feedback and insight that has been gathered over the years, to include that provided by 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers, are helping to inform the Army's TCAPS program to select a family of technologies which best meet Soldier needs.
Soldiers from 1st BCT evaluated nine total hearing protection devices, eight TCAPS plus Combat Arms EarplugsTM (CAE). CAEs allow auditory situational awareness, while protecting from impulse noise (i.e., loud and fast sounds, such as weapon fire) in the open position. When traveling by vehicle or aircraft, the rocker switch can be placed in the closed position and the CAE works likes traditional hearing protection.
The agenda for the week at Fort Benning and the Maneuver Battle Lab consisted of new equipment training and fitting, speech intelligibility testing, team maneuver live-fire exercises, and mounted speech intelligibility.
Soldiers were to evaluate eight different TCAPS systems and a baseline, the CAE. These systems included a combination of over-the ear and in-the ear systems, as well as those able to connect to a radio (tethered) or those not able to connect to a radio (untethered). Soldiers were given instructions equipment functionality and appropriate sizing of ear pieces.
Speech intelligibility testing was completed to evaluate the effectiveness (command and control, and situational awareness) as well as suitability (compatibility) of the technology candidates.
The testing consisted of the Soldiers identifying the correct word (from a list of six) spoken aloud or coming over the radio. Soldiers were simultaneously evaluating comfort, weight, compatibility with clothing, use with their helmet, ease of functionality, utilization of volume control, hearing and understanding of commands, etc.
Team maneuver live-fire exercises were designed to determine effectiveness (command and control, situational awareness, and Soldier ability to fight in steady state and impulse noise environments) and the suitability (compatibility) of the TCAPS candidates. Teams performed a movement-to-contact drill with each of the systems.
Upon completion, the Soldiers answered questions about radio communication, compatibility with weapon, and firing position, mobility, etc.
The mounted speech intelligibility exercise was similar to the first speech intelligibility test, except that Soldiers were seated in a Stryker vehicle. Soldiers rated items such as the ability to understand commands, comfort, safety, etc.
After a week of evaluating the different TCAPS, Graham, who had previously stated he never wore hearing protection during deployment, said “That would change with TCAPS.”
Noetzel said she was encouraged by what she saw.
“As a medical officer trying to keep the war fighter in the fight and preventing Soldiers from acquiring hearing loss, I am excited to know that there is a solution on the horizon that will do both,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Hearing Program Office, located in Clark Hall, offers such services as fitting combat hearing protection devices, annual hearing conservation briefings, and monthly training for those tasked with additional duties as their unit hearing program officer.
To learn more about how to improve your unit hearing program at Fort Drum, contact the Hearing Program Office at 772-3622.
Preventive Medicine, Audiology