Nearly 200 NY firefighters sue over siren noise

Well-known fire truck and siren manufacturers are among the six defendants in the case


By Phil Fairbanks
The Buffalo News

BUFFALO, N.Y. — There are few things more synonymous with firefighting than the loud, anxiety-inducing siren of an approaching fire engine.

But are those ubiquitous sirens also damaging the hearing of the men and women who ride the trucks?

More than 190 Buffalo firefighters think so and have filed suit seeking damages for their injuries.

The suits, which are similar to civil cases filed by firefighters in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago, claim the companies that made or used the sirens "knew or should have known" they were harmful.

"The sirens are too loud," said Marc J. Bern of Manhattan, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, "and the firefighters can't get protection."

The lawsuits — 20 are now pending in Buffalo federal court — seek an unspecified amount in damages for each of the 193 firefighters named in them. Filed in state court in September, they recently were moved to federal court by the six defendants.

"All parties are entitled to have their rights determined by the judicial system, and that applies to defendants as well as plaintiffs," said Anthony J. Colucci III, a lawyer for Pierce Manufacturing, one of the defendants.

This is not the first time firefighters have sued over a loss of hearing.

In early 2011, Federal Signal Corp., a manufacturer of fire engine sirens, announced a settlement with 1,125 firefighters represented by one of the lawyers in the Buffalo case.

Under that settlement, the company offered to pay $3.8 million but characterized the offer as a "favorable development." The Illinois-based manufacturer cited its success in obtaining defense verdicts in cases that went to trial and its track record in getting other suits dismissed by the court.

The settlement offer amounted to an average of $3,380 for each of the firefighters.

"Federal Signal has strong defenses to these claims, and we are committed to defending our siren products and litigating these cases as necessary," said Jennifer Sherman, chief administrative officer and general counsel for the company, at the time. "Sirens are necessary public safety products and save lives."

Bern alleges that his clients were subjected to a harmful work environment and, in court papers, suggests several factors contributed to their hearing loss, including a truck compartment that by design invited excessive noise. He also says the compartment lacked adequate sound insulation.

In the 2011 announcement of the Federal Signal settlement, a lawyer for the 1,125 firefighters called the offer a satisfactory resolution and acknowledged the difficulty in winning the hearing loss cases.

"Years of litigation and several trials have brought both sides to the point where settlement makes sense," said Joseph Capelli, one of the lawyers in the Buffalo case. "After extensively investigating fire departments in various states and handling several hundred individual firefighter cases, I have concluded that most firefighter claims are complicated and challenging cases to win."

The other defendants in the lawsuits are American LaFrance, Kovatch Mobile Equipment, Seagrave Fire Apparatus and Mack Trucks, all of Pennsylvania.

The link between noise and hearing loss in firefighters dates back decades.

In 1992, then-U.S. Fire Administrator Olin L. Greene, the nation's top fire official, said noise is probably "the most underrated health hazard" for firefighters and emergency service personnel.

"The cases of hearing loss are irreversible and incurable," Greene said at the time. "They are also preventable."

More recently, a University of California study in 2007 found 40 percent of all firefighters were at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

The study of more than 400 firefighters from 35 fire departments in California, Illinois and Indiana also found that firefighters use ear protection devices — ear muffs and ear plugs — only about a third of the time.

"That protection has not been provided," Bern said, "because fire departments don't have the money."

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(c)2014 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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