Is All That Noise Really Necessary – Especially the Wailing Sirens?

Noise, the polls tell us, is increasingly getting on peoples’ nerves in cities and towns. The clamor in downtown Washington needs no exag­geration. People have been known to move away to quieter parts of the city. Recently, the added noise at construction sites has led some sonic vic­tims in office buildings to look for other work reasonably detached from the din. Health specialists no longer view noise as merely another irritant of technological society. It is a clear health hazard with measurable physiological effects on all people and uniquely adverse impacts on the elderly and infants.

Lawmakers are beginning to recognize the need to impose standards on trucks, motorcycles, airplanes and construction equipment. The ambi­ent noise pressure is too often above maximum recommended levels.

ONE DEFIANT NOISEMAKER escapes the restraint of the law, however. It is the emergency vehicle siren – police, fire and ambulance. The shrill wail or yelp emanating from an emergency vehicle siren is so frequent in Washington that the nation’s capital can be called “Siren City, USA.”

The ear-splitting siren is the loudest regular sound in the city and can be compared to a loud rock band. Siren sound pressures at ten to three feet from the source can range from 120 decibels to 130 decibels – genuinely detrimental levels.

For years, few questioned siren noise because of the emergency nature of the vehicle’s mission. Lately, a number of studies, civic protests and local governmental actions have cast doubt on both the need and effectiveness of many uses of the siren while recognizing its legitimate pur­poses.

The primary purpose of sirens is to alert traffic and pedestrians of the presence of an emergency vehicle so as to hasten the arrival of assistance to areas where people are in imminent danger or property is in jeopardy. In many cities, all fire and ambulance calls are considered “emer­gency” while police vehicles usually exercise more selectivity.

SOMETIMES THERE ARE clear cases of abuse where sirens are used simply to get through traffic without any emergency mission.

Taxi-drivers and other observers have their eyewitness accounts of such frolics – one saw an ambulance driver tear through a main urban dis­trict with sirens screaming only to pull up at a newsstand to purchase a magazine. But as might be expected there are no statistics on the scope of this misuse.

Washington police sources say that their vehi­cle drivers are told to hold sirens only for emer­gencies, not just to get through some red lights. The guidelines are very general.

In California, however, a code response system in use is stricter and more specific in its catego­ries of permitting or prohibiting sirens than the general emergency-non-emergency response sys­tem in use around the country. As a result, there are fewer uses of sirens, especially from the scene of the accident, by both police and ambu­lance vehicles.

The California regulations reflect the fact that overuse of sirens can produce serious conse­quences, particularly with reference to ambu­lances. Accidents can occur, with resultant injuries. The tumult and disruption can further impair the transported patient’s condition.

“Proper handling (in the ambulance) contrib­utes far more to health than speeding ambu­lances,” writes Arnold M. Lewis, Jr. in a course guide for paramedical personnel.

Walter Schafer, who runs a major ambulance service in California, states, “I’d remove sirens today from my ambulances if I had the protec­tion of the law to back me up.”

He believes that sirens adversely affect the patient and increase traffic risks more than the very limited benefit they may confer in unusual cases. Such a strong viewpoint is rare, but there are many references to crashes and casualties in­volving siren use to make people reflect.

There is increasing debate in police circles about the advisability of siren use in a number of circumstances. Arthur Smith of the international Association of Chiefs of Police says that if a store was being stuck up, “it would be the dumbest thing in the world to drive up with a siren” since the robber would be forewarned and given a chance to escape.

A counter view would say that it would be bet­ter to let the culprit try to escape than complete the felony and mayhem.

Varying viewpoints do not justify the status quo of widespread overuse or misuse of sirens. Closer scrutiny and better tailored operating standards are needed in any event.

Even in instances where sirens are necessary, questions have been raised about their effective­ness:

Are they penetrating enough and can people in cars with rolled up windows hear them from vari­ous angles?

Are people confused by the directional am­biguity of the oncoming vehicle siren?

Do fancy gadgets or dual speakers on electronic sirens work?

Is the annoying “yelp” really more audible than the wail?

It is time for citizens to contact the anti-noise associations in their community for action lead­ing to a little more peace and quiet.

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