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Firefighters sue over hearing loss; blame loud sirens


Are the sirens used by local fire trucks to clear traffic out of the way when speeding to a burning building too loud?

Thirteen past and current employees of Indian River County Fire Rescue and Indian River Shores Fire Department filed a lawsuit this month, alleging hearing loss.  The firefighters claim in an Aug. 7 civil suit that the jarring wail of the sirens in their fire engines is causing permanent damage to their hearing.

Federal Signal Corporation manufactures the sirens used in fire engines in Indian River County and across much of the United States. The Oak Brook, Ill., company has faced thousands of similar lawsuits spanning nearly two decades. Litigation over the years has shown no consistent winner, favoring at times both the company and the firefighters.

Nearly two-dozen Palm Beach County firefighters filed a similar suit this month.

Federal Signal is not only liable, but also negligent, argues Carmen DeGisi, the lawyer who drafted the complaint in the local case. His firm, Bern Cappellli, in Conshochocken, Pa., has represented firefighters in many of the civil suits across the country.

Federal Signal sold “defective” sirens that “emit an intense omni-directional noise at a pitch and decibel level which is unreasonably dangerous,” the complaint notes. There were inadequate warnings about hearing loss, and Federal Signal failed to use reasonable care to test and design a safe product, it says.

The Indian River County plaintiffs are asking for $75,000 per individual to cover medical costs and other damages. They became aware of their hearing loss and its underlying cause when they attended audiological screenings provided for firefighters. Those named in the suit have been told by their attorneys not to comment.

Federal Signal disputes the allegations and says it will continue to defend its sirens in court.

“The loud audible warning that the lawyers are attacking in these cases saves the lives of the public who encounter emergency vehicles on the road, saves the lives and property of people who need the fire department’s help and protects the firefighters who are trying to quickly and safely get to an emergency,” said David Duffy, national counsel for Federal Signal in the hearing loss litigation.

“For three decades, Federal Signal has informed fire departments and firefighters that sirens produce loud sounds that have the potential to cause hearing loss.  For three decades, the fire service has endorsed mandatory hearing protection for any firefighter that is exposed to any loud noise.”

Federal Signal’s sirens are in high demand by both firefighters and fire departments, he said. 

All of the 15 fire engines in use by Indian River County Fire Rescue are equipped with Federal Signal sirens, said Cory Richter, battalion chief.  Richter was not aware of the civil suit being filed locally and said it was unlikely to impact the department. Legal fees are not being paid by the county.

Auditory problems are a reality for many firefighters, said Richter, who has been with the department for 25 years and also struggles with his hearing. He is not part of the civil suit.  Things like hearing aids can cost up to $5,000 per ear to purchase and maintain, he said. They have to be replaced regularly. “That’s a considerable amount of money.”

Firefighters working for Indian River County start at $42,000 a year and tend to retire in the $60,000 to $70,000 a year range, he said.  County records show one workers’ compensation claim filed by a county firefighter last December projects up to $65,000 in total expenses for hearing loss sustained over a 26-year period.

The challenge will be to prove their hearing damage came directly from Federal Signal’s siren, Richter said.  Firefighters are around loud noises all the time. It’s not just the siren made by Federal Signal.  Ambulances in Indian River County, for example, use a different manufacturer. 

“Was it the other sirens, the loud music when I was younger, how do you prove it’s any one thing?” he asked. “I think sirens alone could potentially do it.”

Federal Signal’s siren is remarkably loud, but it is designed that way to alert traffic that the fire department is coming, Richter said.

Some of the newer cars on the road these days are built to be sound proof, and even the noise of the siren is muffled, he said. People need to be aware when a fire engine is speeding down the road.

There is no doubt these are controversial cases, said Geoffrey Bichler, of the Florida law firm Bichler, Oliver, Longo and Fox, a workers’ compensation and liability attorney who represents firefighters in Indian River County and across the state.

Bichler is not part of the civil suit, but is following it closely in his work to secure medical cost reimbursement for firefighters facing occupational injuries and hazards.

Many are quick to discount the merit of the firefighters’ claims, making the assumption that loud sirens are par for the course in firefighting work, he said.

That, however, is an oversimplification of the issue. “That’s not really what this is about,” Bichler said “It’s about protecting [firefighters] and making the siren company responsible for the medical care.”

The incidence of hearing loss among firefighters, especially those late in their career, is high, Bichler said. “It’s a real problem,” he added. “Losing your hearing can be a pretty profound experience that can really impact a person.”

The argument plaintiffs are making across the country is that these sirens don’t have to be as loud as they are to serve public safety, and that technology now exists to disperse the sound differently to ease the noise levels on or near the truck.

These civil suits are another way for firefighters to get help with medical costs and shift the burden away from workers’ compensation claims and the taxpayer, he said. “If they can look to somebody else to help pay for some of this medical care, that should be win-win, not just for the firefighters, but for the tax payers as well.”

Municipalities should encourage participation in the lawsuits because ultimately any financial recovery can also benefit them, Bichler said.  “Controversial or not, this is what moves the law along,” he explained.

“What I expect will happen is the employers will jump on once the firefighters start seeing success.”