The lives of first responders are often fraught with unseen dangers, as evidenced by a court decision last month out of St. Francis County.
A jury there came down squarely on the side of first responders who in April 2018 arrived at a truck wreck without realizing the exposed cargo included formic acid; they'd never been informed of the hazardous material being hauled, so they didn't don critical protective gear.
"Plaintiffs and attorneys," Democrat-Gazette reporter Lara Farrar wrote, "said they hope the case will raise awareness about the importance of protecting first responders who are the first line of defense in such situations and must be informed immediately of any type of chemical that could permanently damage their health or cause possibly fatal diseases, like cancer.
"When formic acid burns, it releases toxic fumes. Those who were at the accident scene were exposed to those gases for hours without knowing it, later learning when they arrived at a hospital complaining of headaches and burning sensations in their nasal passages and throats that they had been breathing in toxic fumes, court documents said.
"'Because the formic acid was exposed to the fire from the wreck and was vaporizing for more than four hours, plaintiffs unknowingly inhaled the poisonous formic acid,' the lawsuit, filed July 31, 2020, said."
Chad Gallagher, founder of Legacy Consulting in Little Rock, was familiar with the unfortunate circumstances that prompted this case.
Gallagher told me in an email he saw the verdict as a validation of the courage of underpaid EMTs and other emergency employees.
"First responders in St. Francis County were unaware of the dangers of the hazardous materials being transported by Old Dominion, the nation's third-largest freight company, based in North Carolina, when responding to the wreck on U.S. 70 in St. Francis County on April 20, 2018," said Gallagher.
"The truck caught fire as a result of the wreck, and first responders, including an Arkansas state trooper, a sheriff's deputy, and volunteer firefighter, were unaware that formic acid was part of the truck's cargo. Formic acid is highly toxic and hazardous. Exposure to the chemical caused irreversible damage."
Gallagher said those first responders endured severe chemical burns in their airways.
According to Dr. Scott Manaker, widely considered among the nation's leading pulmonologists, they will never heal from Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome, often described as akin to breathing through a straw.
"This makes any activity with exertion prohibited," Gallagher said, "forever altering the victims' lifestyles. In addition, the chemical burns from breathing formic acid can contribute to moderate COPD, coronary heart disease, and other medical conditions and future risks, such as cancer–and in some cases lead to death."
A jury of nine women and three men sided with the first responders. After hearing an abundance of evidence they required less than three hours to reach their decision.
"At trial it was noted the truck was not marked with a hazardous material placard. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules required the company to immediately notify first responders there was a hazardous material onboard," Gallagher said, adding that the company didn't alert law enforcement of the material until more than five hours later, when first responders were already receiving treatment.
Industry critics say placards and hazardous material notifications are sometimes avoided because a placarded trailer can face additional fees in transporting freight and that an accident with hazardous materials is more expensive to clean up and creates other regulatory scrutiny for freightliners, Gallagher said.
"It's unknown why Old Dominion did not notify first responders, as they didn't offer a reason at trial. The company, reporting over a billion dollars in profit per quarter in 2021, only said through executives at trial that if they had been asked if there was hazardous materials, they would have gladly informed the first responders."
"Sadly, they know the rules and failed to report it. They're trained for this. There are rules for this," Gallagher continued. The lead plaintiff received $25 million, with an additional $50 million divided among the other five plaintiffs.
"The verdict sends a strong and important message," Gallagher said. "First responders are a critical component of community safety and many of them are volunteers."
It's clear the citizens of St. Francis feel nothing but understanding and compassion for those in their community willing to risk everything to protect its citizens.
I believe that's the case in communities across Arkansas, which thankfully stands in sharp contrast to some major U.S. cities whose elected officials have been foolish enough to defund and devalue their vital public safety agencies and the heroes they employ.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.