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Firing Range Staff Claim Hearing Loss

As they await the release of an Office of Compliance inspection report, Capitol Police firing range instructors are speaking out about the health and safety violations they say exist at one of the department’s primary training facilities.

Not long after the Capitol Police first began firearms training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Cheltenham, Md., in early 2004, instructors began raising concerns that the noise level on the ranges far exceeds Occupational Safety and Health Act exposure limits.

The poorly designed ranges are so loud, instructors say, that in addition to their own health being at risk, the situation also creates an ongoing safety hazard because instructors can’t communicate with students who may be handling a weapon incorrectly while on the firing line. Instructors claim the FLETC facility suffers from a poor acoustic layout and insufficient sound reduction systems.

Instructor Mike Riley, who also serves on the executive board of the Capitol Police Labor Committee, has been leading efforts on behalf of the eight instructors whose job it is to make sure the department’s more than 1,600 officers are trained and up to date on a variety of standard-issue weapons, ranging from handguns to shotguns to rifles.

Riley said this week that he is upset that OSHA regulations still are being ignored by department officials even as the unsafe noise levels have driven one of his fellow instructors to require hearing aids in both ears.

While the Office of Compliance findings, which have not been made public, generally support the instructor’s claims, they conflict with an Environmental Protection Agency study that was commissioned by the department, according to Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who also serves as chairman of the Capitol Police Board and was chief of the department when the Capitol Police began using the Cheltenham ranges.

“The attorneys for the department are sitting down with folks from the Office of Compliance and saying, ‘Lets look at your numbers and methodology, let’s look at EPA and lets see where the truth of the matter is,’” Gainer said.

But as those discussions take place, one other issue that is complicating the situation are claims by Capitol Police lawyers that the OOC is out of its jurisdiction in trying to regulate a building that belongs to the Department of Homeland Security and therefore is an executive branch facility.

Riley filed his request for an OOC inspection in March 2006 after raising concerns with department brass, including Gainer, for two years.

“Before getting the OOC involved I wanted to make sure all avenues had been exhausted,” Riley said. “But in close to three years of being [at Cheltenham], nobody from the command staff has ever even come out to see what the conditions are like. I can count on one hand the number of folks above the rank of lieutenant who have come out there.”

The Cheltenham range, which the force pays to use, is one of three main ranges that Capitol Police train on. The department also trains officers at ranges in Quantico, Va., and in a Capitol Police facility in the Rayburn House Office Building.

In his OOC request, Riley states that after just six months of using the Cheltenham ranges “several [instructors] for the first time ever, showed a shift in our hearing test. … Also several of us have had other health issues such as sinus problems, which the doctor said might be a result of the noise at the facility. In addition … the students and shooters at this facility are not even able at times to hear range commands from either the tower or line instructors.”

Dismissing arguments that a shift in hearing is a normal side effect of working on a firing range, Riley points to fellow civilian instructor Jerry Smith, who, before joining the Capitol Police, worked as a firing range instructor for the Prince George’s County police for eight years without experiencing any major side effects. But after just six months at Cheltenham, Smith began experiencing a major shift in his hearing threshold and today wears hearing aids for high-pitch hearing loss “and it’s starting to go toward low-pitch hearing problems, too,” Smith said.

According to department memorandums, in early 2005, several months after the Capitol Police began using the Cheltenham ranges, the Office of the Attending Physician contacted the department’s safety manager, Rick Rogers, after noticing a “threshold-hearing shift” in one instructor and receiving complaints from several others during routine medical evaluations.

Gainer pointed out that the department has taken steps to protect its instructors from noise-related health problems in the past three years.

Within the first year of being at Cheltenham, the department stopped using the facility’s smaller 25-yard ranges, which are the loudest, and now trains only on the 50-yard ranges.

Also, “we wanted to get the absolute best ear protection for the people out there and I know we turned to the aviation industry and the military to find out what the best was,” Gainer said.

Riley acknowledged that new ear protection was distributed to instructors, but only after more than a year of being on the ranges. And even after receiving the new equipment, instructors still are in violation of OSHA limits for time of exposure at dangerous decibel limits, he said.

Gainer said that “we think we’ve done as much as possible to minimize damage to their ears. … [But] if there are people who have hearing loss, and we have no reason to believe they do not, then we need to fix that and make them whole and also see how we can prevent such occurrences in the future.”

“From my personal perspective having led those guys, it’s not enough to debate the issue of did they file in the right place or is there a disagreement between EPA and Office of Compliance experts,” Gainer added. “The real issue is, have we done everything we can for these guys. And if we failed in some place, to make them well. And we’re working on that.”

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