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Dangerous Decibels

The loud report of a weapon discharged next to an unprotected ear can deafen a tactical officer and give bad guys an advantage. But there's a simple solution to this problem that few entry teams use.

August 01, 2008  |  by Lawrence Heiskell, MD, FACEP, FAAFP

Noise is an enemy of hearing, and it really does not take a lot of noise to damage your hearing. When the ears are exposed to extremely loud noise, inner ear structures can be damaged, sometimes permanently. This medical condition is called Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).

Noise is also the enemy of communications and tactical awareness. So to improve the performance of law enforcement tactical units and protect the hearing of their highly trained operators, it's time for agencies nationwide to invest in suppressors for the weapons used by their entry teams.

Current law enforcement tactics require that tactical team members be in very close proximity to one another as they search a structure for suspects. That means that weapons are typically held a few inches away from the ears of team members as each threat area is searched and cleared.

During such an operation, the immediate threat area is often flooded with multiple team members, carrying pistols, submachine guns, and assault weapons. A discharge of any of these firearms to engage or neutralize a threat is more than sufficient to produce a devastating irreversible noise injury to the hearing of the officers involved, especially those officers whose ears are inches away from the weapon. Repeated shots fired will inflict further damage on officers' hearing.

This devastatingly painful sound also has tactical implications. It disorients, distracts, and impairs the ability of the tactical operator to make split-second decisions. What that means is that when shots are fired, the team has been essentially "flash-banged," giving its opponent a tactical advantage. Think about the implications of what the team is facing if a motivated shooter (or shooters) understands and uses the effects of noise on their opponents.

While the tactical officer is focused on recovering from the noise injury, he is at a disadvantage and has lost his ability to focus on the threat. In addition, when multiple shots are fired in a close environment, there is always the risk of contagious fire and the sympathetic response from other startled officers to pull the trigger and inadvertently discharge their weapons.

Today, most entry teams do very little to protect their hearing should shots be fired. Some operators wear radio ear pieces on one of their ears, but this offers little protection against the report of any weapon at close range. Typically, the operators leave their non-radio ears unprotected to enhance their tactical awareness.

Some agencies require that tactical officers wear some form of hearing protection in the ear opposite the radio earbud. That may preserve an officer's hearing, but it diminishes tactical awareness, and the quality of protection that it offers can vary widely.

I believe that a better solution to this problem is to fit the primary weapons used by entry team members with suppressors.

The best suppressors can reduce the report of a weapon by more than 30 decibels (dB). That may not seem to be a significant difference. However, the decibel measurement of sound is logarithmic, which means that a 30 dB drop is actually a 1,000-percent reduction in sound.

When mounted on pistols and submachine guns using subsonic (slower than the speed of sound) ammunition, a good suppressor can reduce the sound to roughly comparable to a staple gun. Often the sound of the gun's bolt cycling is louder than the actual report.

A good example is the Heckler & Koch MP5SD. This integrally suppressed submachine gun used by many law enforcement agencies drops the bullet's speed to approximately 850 feet per second and eliminates the supersonic crack, as the bullet does not exceed the speed of sound at approximately 1,150 feet per second.

Suppressors are particularly useful in enclosed spaces where the sound, flash, and pressure effects of a weapon being fired are amplified, such as in a close quarter battle (CQB) in a mobile home or in tubular assaults (buses, trains, and planes). Such effects will disorient the shooter, affecting concentration and accuracy, and can permanently damage hearing very quickly.

Some of the newer suppressors on the market can even improve minute-of-angle accuracy and may increase bullet velocity by as much as 30 to 50 feet per second.

There is also a further tactical benefit. A suppressor eliminates the muzzle flash, depending on the specific ammunition fired. This could be a very important advantage during tactical operations under low-light conditions, since some well-trained criminals know to identify and shoot at muzzle flashes. Another reason to reduce muzzle flash is to minimize explosion danger during warrant service in a location that is suspected of being a clandestine drug lab. A muzzle flash in this environment can be catastrophic for everyone in the room or even the building.

CONTINUED: Dangerous Decibels «   Page 1 of 2   »

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