Taking the family to the Daffodil Festival Parade on Saturday?
If so, along with the lawn chair, refreshments and other accessories (including, this year, rain boots), you might consider earplugs or child-size earmuffs.
The ship-shaped float of Seattle’s raucous Seafair Pirates will be joining the parade, and — as has been the case for decades — so will their black-powder “cannon” noisemaker.
Veterans of the Daffodil Parade, and any other Puget Sound festivals the pirate crew joins, have seen the routine: A siren rings out, the pirates cover their ears and a lit fuse does its job.
The report echoes from what Danny Sullivan, the Seafair Pirates’ president, calls a “noise-emitting device” — because there’s no cannonball sent flying. The BLAM all by itself pierces through ambient parade noise, bounces off concrete-and-steel downtown canyons, and grabs attention.
“That’s the iconic piece to the whole thing,” Sullivan said.
In recent years in downtown Tacoma, the sensation has shocked some children to tears.
It might be a long-term danger for their unguarded ears, according to a hearing expert.
“It’s a concern,” said Sepehr Oliaei, a MultiCare ear, nose and throat physician who has studied hearing loss. “The more problematic type of noise is when you have short bursts of really high-level sound. A cannon would certainly qualify for that.”
Oliaei lives in Gig Harbor and has not been to the Daffodil Parade. He said cannon noise — if it reaches the 120 to 130 decibel volume of a common jackhammer or ambulance siren — could set ears ringing, which indicates what experts call “temporary hearing shift.” That’s a change in the levels of sound a person can hear.
A Seattle Times account described the noisemaker in 2005 as “no louder than a 12-gauge shotgun.” At last year’s parade, the volume from the sidewalk seemed comparable, at least to a reporter long familiar with guns.
That would place the cannon’s report in the 150-decibel range. Normal conversation is 60 decibels, more or less. Guidelines circulated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting one’s unprotected exposure to 85 decibels, a level quieter than a standard hand drill.
The cannon’s estimated volume is loud enough to make protection a good idea, Oliaei said.
“I have patients who came back from a gun range where they took off their protection device for a brief second,” he said. “Somebody shot off a gun, and they had immediate hearing loss associated with it, and this is measurable. Yeah, it can make a difference.”
The problems don’t go away when the ears stop ringing, he said. The absence of ringing ears is not proof that damage has been avoided. Hearing loss builds subtly over a lifetime and can start before children understand or notice.
“Part of the challenge that we have with this is that these amounts of hearing change aren’t necessarily functionally disabling or noticeable even in the initial part of life, or even in your 20s or 30s,” Oliaei said, “but they can certainly become a challenge and have an additive effect as you age.
“Over time it becomes a problem. It’s hard to tell that to kids, though.”
He said parents taking children to the parade should try to persuade the young ones to use ear protection. Failing that, there’s always using grown-up hands to cover children’s ears when the cannon is about to fire.
At the past two Daffodil Parades, this reporter noticed two problems with the adult-applied hand-earmuff approach.
First, parents are often distracted by busy parade activity and don’t recognize what the Seafair siren signals. Second, with only two hands, it’s hard for an adult to cover a child’s ears and one’s own.
Sullivan said the Seafair Pirates have rolled before without the cannon, but almost always plan to bring it along.
“It’s something that everyone just loves,” said Sullivan, a West Seattle businessman.
The group has about 54 members, he said, from across the region, though none from Tacoma. All participants in the parade signal to the crowd what to do when the warning siren rises.
“When you hear that siren and you see the guys on the street cover up their ears, everyone knows the cannons are coming,” Sullivan said.
Daffodil Festival executive director Steve James said he has heard only one objection to the volume of the Seafair Pirates’ cannon: An annual complaint lodged by an Orting resident, who James suggests contact local government. The noise ordinance in Orting, like those governing Tacoma and unincorporated Pierce County, has an exemption for parades.
Neither James nor Sullivan could say how long the pirates have been part of the Daffodil Parade.
“Next to the Daffodil princesses, everyone looks forward to the Seafair Pirates,” James said.