Chief Leader - December 22, 2015by SARAH DORSEY
They rode in fire rigs for years, and now they are paying for it with their hearing.
That’s the message that more than 4,000 firefighters—including 1,500 in the FDNY—have delivered to a manufacturer they say failed to install a simple device to make sirens safer.
Needed to Diffuse Sound
The plaintiffs have filed suit in several states seeking $75,000 each in damages, saying they suffered irreversible hearing loss because the sirens designed by Federal Signal—a Chicago manufacturer—lacked a “shroud,” a device that directs the sound outside the fire truck’s cab.
Many of the current and retired firefighters now have difficulty picking up their loved ones’ conversations, and some wear hearing aids.
In a complaint nine of them filed in New York State Supreme Court, they claim two models of sirens designed and sold by Federal Signal emitted about 120 decibels of noise into the rigs. That’s been compared to the sound of a fireworks display or loud rock concert. A simple device could have diverted the noise outward, they say, the way a flashlight points light in one direction.
Edward Marcowitz, a managing partner at Bern Ripka, said the litigation has been going on for at least 14 years. Senior partner Marc Bern took over the case about four years ago.
Takes Cumulative Toll
Mr. Marcowitz pointed to studies, some conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters, showing that firefighters had significant hearing loss after years of riding in rigs with the sirens. And he said the company had done studies years ago in special chambers and knew how loud it was inside the trucks.
“My firm feels a tremendous sense of responsibility to these brave heroes who risk their lives for us every day. The least we can do for them is try to insure that the equipment which they work on is safe,” he said.
“The claims by these plaintiff lawyers that sirens are too loud and should be more directive don’t make sense,” J. David Duffy, an attorney for Federal Signal, responded in an e-mail. “Firefighters have testified that they want a loud siren that projects its sound to the front and sides of fire trucks to alert other drivers and pedestrians of their approach. Statistics show that a significant number of fatal accidents involving emergency vehicles occur on the sides and to the rear of the vehicles. Restricting the full sound range of sirens increases the risk of accidents…[it] puts firefighters and the public at greater risk, particularly at intersections.”
He said that firefighting organizations have required hearing protection for decades because of siren noise.
So far, plaintiffs have joined the suit from places as far as Buffalo, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Boston and Florida, and Mr. Marcowitz expects more in the coming weeks.
In 2009, a Chicago jury awarded $425,000 to nine firefighters, agreeing that Federal Signal’s sirens had damaged their hearing.
Unsuccessful N.Y. Case
Other actions against the company have not gone as well. One New York court dismissed a hearing-loss claim brought by four firefighters, and the verdict was affirmed on appeal in 2009.
Mr. Marcowitz said his firm is using a different legal strategy. The earlier New York case hinged on the company’s failure to warn firefighters, he said. His is a strict product liability case. It charges that the company sold “defective” sirens and was “aware, and/or in the possession, of an available safer design that was functional and reasonably priced.”
Over the years, most of the other hearing-loss cases against Federal Signal were dismissed by judges or defeated at trial, though the manufacturer did settle one claim involving 1,125 firefighters for $3.8 million in 2011.
Federal Signal’s Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Sherman, then the chief administrative officer, released a statement calling that outcome “a very favorable development.”
‘We Have Strong Defenses’
“As demonstrated in our recent trial victories, as well as our track record generally throughout this litigation, Federal Signal has strong defenses to these claims and we are committed to defending our siren products and litigating these cases as necessary. Sirens are necessary public safety products and save lives,” she said.
The company has also argued that the noise was less harmful because workers were exposed for only a few minutes at a time.