Motorists and pedestrians need to hear firetrucks approaching. But some firefighters say the sirens are too loud - and they hold manufacturers responsible for their hearing loss.
Nearly 2,500 veteran firefighters across the country have joined in "mass tort" lawsuits accusing an Illinois siren-maker of marketing a defective product that damaged their hearing.
"The defect is that the firefighters are behind the siren, and there's no design element to reduce the flow of decibels to them," said Jordan Margolis, a Chicago personal injury lawyer and the plaintiffs' lead attorney.
Margolis began with 12 lawsuits in 1999 on behalf of 650 Chicago firefighters. There are now 33 suits with plaintiffs from nearly 200 fire departments in 17 states, including Maryland. All have been filed in Cook County, Ill., Circuit Court.
The defendant is Federal Signal Corp. of Oak Brook, Ill., one of the largest siren-makers in the nation. Jennifer L. Sherman, the company's general counsel, said the firm has successfully defended similar cases in Philadelphia, and "we anticipate we'll be successful again."
Margolis, who expects the first cases to go to trial next year, says the proportion of firefighters with some degree of hearing damage is "probably about 75 percent."
That's far higher than results from a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1987 - not long after many fire departments launched hearing protection measures. Of 333 firefighters it tested at a convention, 51 percent had some hearing loss. More than a quarter had at least moderate loss.
Other NIOSH studies in the 1980s and 1990s found a statistical link between noise-related hearing damage among firefighters and their years of service, even after controlling for age-related loss.
A more recent study suggests that hearing conservation plans in place since the 1980s may be helping. Washington University scientists reported this year in the journal Ear and Hearing that they examined 12,609 hearing tests conducted over 11 years in two large urban fire departments. They concluded that those firefighters "do not exhibit excessive loss of hearing" when compared with people their age who are not exposed to loud noise at work.
Testing under way in Baltimore has found hearing loss in 8 percent of the city's 1,400 firefighters, according to the department's chief safety officer, William H. Jones Jr. None wears a hearing aid.
Baltimore County reports "five or six" active firefighters with hearing aids on a force of 1,000. Although spokesman Jim Korn said the county doesn't compile test results, officials believe hearing loss among firefighters is normal for their age group. None has been retired for a hearing disability since 1984.
In Chicago, Margolis said some of his clients started work 20 or 30 years ago, before conservation measures began. But others have just five to 10 years on the job. All have some hearing loss.
Margolis argues that Federal Signal understood the dangers decades ago but did nothing to modify the sound, focus it ahead of the trucks or warn firefighters about the hazard. The only modification, he said, was a new industry standard that moved sirens from the cab roof to the front bumper.
"Everyone [in the industry] still makes the same product. They don't want to spend a dime, and they don't care enough about the firefighters to change the design," Margolis said.
At Federal Signal, Sherman said the company added warnings to its sirens. She said the firm also considered adding a shroud that would focus the sound forward, but dropped the idea because it would "compromise the effectiveness of the siren - the omnidirectional nature of the warning."
In the vast majority of cases, "we don't believe the noise doses are long enough to cause noise-induced hearing loss," she said.
"The municipalities should test [noise levels] and, if necessary, provide hearing protection to the firefighters," she said.