The Effect of Alerting and Tones on Firefighters’ Heart Rates

By US Fire Administration


Many studies point out cardiovascular risk factors for firefighters, such as fitness, age, overexertion and stress. But are there other factors to consider?

Studies evaluating firefighter heart rates date back to the mid-1970s and clearly show that there is a tachycardic response (elevated heart rate above the norm) when firefighters are alerted to an emergency. The authors of a recent study on station-specific alerting and ramp-up tones wondered if there are ways to reduce alarm stress on firefighters. They hypothesized that decreasing the number of alerts per station, adjusting the tone volume, and decreasing the startling nature of them could reduce physiologic and mental stress.

“We need our crews to be awake and alert, not chronically fatigued. Startling them awake every time they have a call is not ideal. The ramp-up tones are a simple, and likely beneficial step we can take to reduce stress on the body. If we can alert more gently without suffering response time delays, we have done our crews a great service.:
— Research team of Macneal, Cone and Wistrom

Research takeaways

  • Small but significant decreases in the amount of tachycardia response to station alerting can be achieved with simple alterations in alerting methods.
  • While this study shows some evidence to support the use of ramp-up alerting, additional opportunities for research could include the ramp-up time and the sound levels of the alerting in bunkrooms, day rooms, and apparatus bays.
  • Implementing station-specific and ramp-up tones plays a role in improving perceived working conditions, and possibly the long-term health of emergency responders.

Macneal, J. J., Cone, D. C., & Wistrom, C. L. (2016). Effect of station-specific alerting and ramp-up tones on firefighters alarm time heart rates. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 13(11), 866-870. doi:10.1080/15459624.2016.1183018

We need our crews to be awake and alert, not chronically fatigued. Startling them awake every time they have a call is not ideal. The ramp-up tones are a simple, and likely beneficial step we can take to reduce stress on the body. If we can alert more gently without suffering response time delays, we have done our crews a great service.
— Research team of Macneal, Cone and Wistrom

Learn more about this research

Full text of this research article is available at Taylor & Francis Online