KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A decorated Sevier County firefighter who wound up in handcuffs as he sped to answer a call for help is asking a federal judge to order the Tennessee Highway Patrol to afford volunteer firefighters the same rights as paid emergency workers.
Attorney Ronald C. Newcomb has filed on behalf of Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Michael Huskey a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Department of Safety, THP Trooper Jackie Bailey and Sgt. Kim Ogle over an incident in January 2007. It is a legal action that could both test and shape the law on when and which emergency workers are allowed to disregard traffic laws in emergency situations.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to issue an injunction against the agency that would require its employees, including state troopers, “to enter into a mutual aid and cooperation agreement, the core of which is to require (troopers) to honor, respect, enforce and avoid interference with the constitutional and statutory rights, privileges and immunities of all Tennessee firefighters, fire departments and emergency communication districts,” regardless of whether those workers earn taxpayer money.
THP has declared Bailey and Ogle blameless in the incident with Huskey, according to a letter from the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility. A Department of Safety spokesperson could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.
Huskey, named the 2005 Sevier County Volunteer Firefighter of the Year, hails from a long line of firemen. But in January 2007, he wound up jailed after Bailey intentionally crashed the fireman’s car in a bid to stop Huskey, who was speeding to answer an emergency call, records show.
According to the lawsuit, Huskey was traveling in his private vehicle with his wife and three young children on Newport Highway in Sevier County on Jan. 5 when he heard a call over his scanner for an ambulance and paramedics to treat a possible stroke victim at a apartment on the nearby South Flat Creek Road.
Huskey intended to let his brethren handle the call since he had his family with him but became alarmed when he learned over the scanner that the ambulance responding to the call only had two medics on board but needed three – two to care for the patient in the back and a third to drive to the hospital.
“Assessing the severity of the situation and realizing he was only a couple of miles away from the scene, Huskey radioed central dispatch advising he would be responding in his personal vehicle. … Huskey immediately turned on his hazard lights,” the lawsuit stated.
As Huskey headed toward Flat Creek, he passed two slower-moving vehicles “on a straightaway just before the Triple C Dance Barn, seeing there was no oncoming traffic,” the lawsuit stated.
It was then Bailey saw him, according to the lawsuit.
When the trooper activated his blue lights, Huskey said he thought Bailey also was headed to the emergency call.
“However, just in case the officer was trying to follow him to pull him over, Huskey radioed central dispatch to advise the officer of the traffic call he was responding to, and central dispatch (confirmed) his request.”
Dispatch records back up Huskey’s account. What’s not clear is whether the trooper’s dispatcher conveyed that information to Bailey. THP has its own independent dispatch system.
As Huskey turned his vehicle onto the curvy, two-lane roadway in Flat Creek, Bailey began spotlighting Huskey. Before Huskey could clear a dangerous blind hill and pull over for the trooper, Bailey executed a maneuver to intentionally crash the firefighter’s car, the lawsuit stated. Dispatch records also document the crash.
Bailey handcuffed Huskey as the firefighter, whose children were screaming in the background, repeatedly tried to explain to the trooper that he was a volunteer firefighter responding to an emergency call, the lawsuit alleged.
Huskey’s supervisors at the fire department arrived at the scene a short time later to vouch for Huskey, but Bailey, with approval from Ogle, persisted in arresting Huskey on charges of felony evading arrest. State prosecutors agreed in October to dismiss the case in an order that became final last month. In the meantime, however, Huskey, who works as an insurance salesman, contends he and his family have suffered embarrassment and upset. They are seeking $750,000 in damages.Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.