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Emergency Fire and Police Sirens; the Loud Noise Bully of the Twenty-First Century

Updated on January 10, 2019
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Rodney is an award-winning multi-media artist and craftsman residing in the Southeastern United States.

Police Choppers Cause Significant Noise Disturbance to Large Areas of Residential Homes.
Police Choppers Cause Significant Noise Disturbance to Large Areas of Residential Homes. | Source

When is Enough, Enough?

Noise, it is indeed everywhere, and it often disturbs our lives to the extent that we cannot sleep or even enjoy a peaceful moment while hiking or camping in the outdoors. Few people in the United States would argue this point, as most everyone in the society of red-white-and-blue have been awakened from a deep sleep by the noise of a Harley Davidson Roadster roaring past their home, or the inconsiderate behavior of a neighbor as he shoots off a bottle rocket to celebrate the first of the month. But despite the shared problem that all of us have with loud noise issues, the problem continues to go unchecked by our government representatives and appears to be growing at a rate more rapidly than the urban sprawl that plagues our cities.

Lack of Enforcement Action

There are many municipal and state laws that regulate the volume and frequency of noise in our communities, but with ineffective enforcement action commonplace, our communities continue to fall victim to this covert attack. Police departments, increasingly challenged with limited manpower and decreasing budgets, seem to have little time for enforcing neighborhood complaints of noise violations. With the magnitude of violent crime that police are currently addressing, their failed effort is understandable, even if it is not acceptable. But local and state governments must find new ways to accomplish more in enforcing "Quality-of-life" laws such as our community noise ordinances.

Emergency Sirens are a Big Part of the Problem

Unfortunately, noise pollution generated by our own public servants is a growing problem and an issue that seems politically untouchable. Siren noise generated by police, fire, and ambulance vehicles have grown in frequency and volume, and they have become overtly intrusive into the interior of our private homes. Today, even outdoor recreation areas near suburban population centers have become infested with unecessary noise pollution from emergency vehicle use. A peaceful trail hike in the country or a quite morning fly fishing at the lake has become an elusive destination for citizens in the twenty-first century . As a retired law enforcement officer, police supervisor, and police administrator (with more than twenty-seven years in the field), I do not make these statements as an attack on our fine emergency-service providers. I am bringing this issue foreward, because it is a serious matter of concern in our development as a society of free people. Are we to bow to commercial ambition and profiteering forever, or will we eventually find a procedure in which we can say enough is enough? When is a siren wail too loud? Can we, as a society, ask this question without appearing to be anti-police or anti-government? Will a louder noise and a brighter light always be deemed "safer" by "the experts?" The problem is very real, and ignoring it will not make it better.

Many comments and discussions concerning the topic of emergency sirens being too loud have been started on Internet websites in the last few years. Most of the time, these complaints have been shot down quickly and ferociously by well-meaning individuals rushing to the defense of police and firefighters. The "Defenders," as I shall call them, seem to believe that they are serving some sacred public trust as they defend police and firefighters against the evil police haters of the world. These Defenders will offer useful advice for citizens struggling with these noise problems. Comments such as, "Just cover your ears until they pass by," or "Leave the police alone," are often posted by the Defenders when anyone dares to complain about the volume of the emergency sirens. While I am sure that many emergency responders appreciate these Defenders and their comments, the Defenders are really missing the essence of the complaint. No one is complaining about our emergency-response personnel, the complaint is that their noise-making devices must have reasonable limits in volume within our free society. Otherwise, all of us may just as well be sleeping at the fire station each night. Let's move past this distraction of loyalty and admit that there is a noise problem with our emergency services providers. It is a growing problem, and our government appears to be unaware of the problem.

A Siren That is Illegal in NYC?

Does Policy Approval Make It Right?

Modern Police Procedures Encourage Siren Activation:

I was a rookie police officer in nineteen-eighty-four. The Eighties was still an era when police officers based most of their decisions on common sense and experience. Conversely, the decisions of today's police officer is more often based on restrictive rules and regulations designed to protect the agency itself. In the Eighties, a police officer would activate the emergency lights and siren only when they were necessary for the job function. This, for example, would be done when an officer was responding to a robbery in progress across town, an officer needing help in a street fight, or an in-progress shooting incident. The use of the emergency siren is appropriate in each of these circumstances. But today, these common-sense ideals have been tossed aside, and the use of excessive siren noise by our emergency responders has grown to unreasonable levels.

During the last three decades, the growth of police accreditation agencies such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), has caused increased complexity in departmental rules and regulations. These agencies have demanded that police departments legitimize their decision-making process with rules and procedural manuals that cover every conceivable occurrence a police officer may encounter while working. Despite this impossible and obviously inflexible goal, the result of the campaign has been to seed a new generation of officers that are spreading unnecessary noise pollution throughout our communities at an alarming rate. Today's police officer doesn't only use the siren when he believes it is necessary, he will activate the siren when he is required to do so by a departmental policy. These policies are, of course, written and developed mainly to protect the departments from civil liability when things go badly on the street, and this is understandable. Unfortunately, one of the effects these protective-policies have is that police officers are encouraged to utilize the emergency lights and siren more frequently than in previous decades. This increased use is occurring for little substantive reason other than to provide a cover-all blanket of protection to government agencies from tort lawsuits centered on traffic accidents involving government vehicles responding to emergency scenes. 

Justifying Emergency Siren Use Is Easier Than ever

If you live near a fire department in any major population center in the United States, you know first hand that this issue is a serious problem that deserves a serious response. If a drunk passes out in front of a bar and grill at three-o'clock in the morning, the good guys in the red truck are going to pull out of the fire station like they are responding to a four-alarm fire at the hospital. Lights will be flashing, the siren wailing, and the driver will be pumping on the air horn to clear the roadway. All of this effort is expended when there is not a soul moving on the road at that time of the morning. Needless noise? Of course it is, but to the new-breed fireman, this is just standard procedure. He must follow the rules regarding siren activation regardless of the impact on a neighborhood's quality of life. This is what our government has allowed our emergency services to become over the last three decades, while using the excuse of public safety needs to deflect any criticism of their policy. At some point (very soon) this issue of public safety must do battle with the issue of quality of life in our neighborhoods.

Police Administrators Love The Howler Siren:

Have Police Sirens Gone Too Far?

Technology Out of Control:

The continued technological enhancement of noise-making devices has also played an important role in the current onslaught of noise. Thirty-years ago, we did not have sixteen-year-old kids driving through our neighborhoods with boom-box speakers capable of penetrating the brick wall of our home with noise and reverberating vibration. The same phenomenon now applies to our modern-day emergency vehicles. Not only have the sirens become louder in the last three decades (they can emit noise as high as 120 decibels), but they now utilize bass-type sound technology that is similar to the teenager's invasive bass stereo. One of the products using this type of technology is called the "Howler," and it is quickly becoming a standard piece of equipment in police and fire department vehicles throughout the United States. These sirens operate on a low-frequency bass tone that can penetrate a vehicle from two-hundred feet away. Civilians within this two-hundred-feet area will literally "feel" the siren shake them as the emergency vehicle approaches. This technology has had good reviews from police departments, and many believe that it reduces the number of accidents resulting from emergency vehicular traffic. While this may be true, it is also true that millions of Americans living within two-hundred feet of main roadways will now be shaken from their bed every time a police officer or fireman responds to a call (legitimate or not) in their area.

Corporate Profit

Corporate greed and profit also play a critical role in this modern noise invasion of our communities. In a never-ending quest for more income and greater profit margins, companies catering to emergency responders are always competing to develop the next must-have device to sell to municipal, state, or federal emergency-response agencies. From my experience, each year seems to bring lights that are bigger and brighter (another topic), sirens that are louder and more intrusive, and price tags (paid for by tax payers) climb higher and higher.

Inadequate government regulation of these high-decibel products are ruining the quality of life in neighborhoods throughout our Country. Out-of-control technology developers believe that there is no restrictive limit to the volume, brightness, or disruptive power of their devices, as long as they sell the items to police, fire, or other government agencies. There is apparently no one with the power, or the resolve, to tell this industry that enough is enough.

Time for Organized Political Action:

It is time to take a mature and unbiased look at this type of government-sanctioned noise pollution without the distracting attachment of defending our emergency-service personnel. Noise is the issue, not the need of police and fire protection. As citizens and homeowners, we must voice our concerns that the noise pollution from emergency vehicle sirens needs oversight and control. Please contact your elected representatives and ask them to legislate limitations on the decibel level and use of invasive technologies in emergency vehicle sirens.

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    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      4 years ago from Southeastern United States

      If it makes sense for public safety, tolerate it. If it is ignorant, arrogant, and offensively loud noise, then no, I refuse to tolerate it. My local Fire Department initially told me that it was the law that they blow their air horns at every intersection regardless of time, conditions, or the location of residential homes close by. Obviously, they did not know the state law regarding their own policy, and had in fact been teaching flawed policy in their academy that was based solely on a fire administrator's personal opinion. City leaders never knew this. Fire Chief's have an over-riding interest in response time. It is their catch-all justification. This tunnel-sighted interest must be counter-balanced by the need to provide a good quality of life for the residents. After months of no response from my fire department, I had to inform my Mayor's Office about this activity. And so far, the fire dept. seems to have stopped the needless activation of their air horns near our homes. Believe me Sanxuary, if they can't hear the truck siren at the intersections, they certainly can't hear a diesel horn either. Loud warnings do not cancel poor driving. Thanks for your comment.

    • profile image

      Sanxuary 

      4 years ago

      This is one of those things I simply tolerate and even with blaring sirens I still see the dumbest drivers. In fact I saw one accident where everyone has stopped but one person kept going and hit the fire truck. On some days it sounds like a war zone around hear with multiple sirens going off all day. The larger the city the more they never stop.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      4 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thank you Chuck. I just tried filing another complaint with my local Fire Chief asking him why his Department has the need to activate their super-loud diesel horns in front of our residential homes at 5AM on a Sunday morning. This horn is above and beyond the normal full-blast siren wailing that we have somehow learned to live with. Apparently, they just don't give a darn about the old retired people (or anyone else) living less than 100 feet away from the road. I'm hoping others out there are raising this issue in their communities and raising it loudly! This additional noise is nothing but trained behavior with no real purpose but to needlesly showboat. Thanks for the comment sir.

    • profile image

      Chuck Harmon 

      4 years ago

      Great website! I live in San Jose, sirens are far to common and way too loud. Their overuse reminds me of the boy who cried wolf story. I would think that lights are far more effective after dark than sirens. You can see where they are coming from, and from a very good distance. No confusion as with the low frequency "rumbler" that is virtually impossible to tell direction from source.

      If riding in an ambulance, hearing a siren gives comfort, pipe it over the interior stereo system. I could also need an emergency ride in an ambulance; or, one of my immediate family... but I believe it is societal selfishness to think we all need Presidential motorcade treatment when we go to a hospital.

      The only truly justified use I have heard is when an officer/violent crime victim is in trouble, the siren lets him and his problem know that help is coming quickly. What is the percentage of such siren usage? Surely no more than one in twenty, perhaps much less.

      Our public servants should not need noise makers to demonstrate their importance. I feel that is what it has largely come to.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      4 years ago from Southeastern United States

      None that I can see Toby. It will take a grass-roots movement from neighborhoods to start a change in attitude from local public officials. And even then, they will still be afraid of tort action against the government anytime an accident occurs and the siren wasn't waking up the dead (as they believe it should). Politicians are very good at passing new laws, but they don't have a clue about changing or removing bad law or policy. Basically ... they are afraid of making a mistake that will harm their career. Just talk with your friends and family and spread the word. Sirens are necessary, but the agencies have gone way too far.

    • Toby Hoffman profile image

      Toby Hoffman 

      4 years ago

      Any progress on this? Found great sight sirenfacts.com. Wonder - are they blaring sirens for dialysis transport? Learned this is biggest recipient of Medicare dollars - private ambulance companies. My tax dollars going to police state idiots and scam artists to ruin my health, property value and quality of life. Next topic - those loud electric generators on office buildings downtown, run all night all weekend when buildings are empty. At least 85 dB.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      5 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thanks for your comment Toby. I do not doubt your statement, as I have witnessed similar activity.

    • profile image

      Toby 

      5 years ago

      Thank you for this Birmingham. EMS use these with no traffic at 3AM every night every fifteen minutes next to my neighborhood. I and my dogs have lost our hearing - loud ringing. My Lab is now completely deaf. They blare the siren going 20 miles an hour on a six lane road with no traffic! THey blare the siren for twisted ankles! I have witnessed it! Every call!! No matter how petty!

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      5 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thanks Benjamin. I agree with you, but it is hard to roll back limits on emergency services personnel. It is just not politically popular to point out these problems.

    • profile image

      Benjamin Goulart 

      5 years ago

      The sirens on most of these vehicles are too loud. They either need volume controls or get them cut down by half the power. You can hear them a dozen blocks away. Less amplitude and brighter flashers and strobes would serve the same purpose and prevent neighborhoods from sliding into ghetto status as property values drop.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      6 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Lily, If you live in a large city the fight to change their ways will be toughest. If you reside in a small village or town, however, you may be able to make some headway with a petition from neighbors that share your problem. You should advise your neighbors that this is not just a temporary issue that you are suffering due to pregnancy, but it affects all property values in the area. Let me be clear in saying that all noise nuisance laws that I am aware of also legally apply to fire and police departments. There are strict guidelines as to when they are allowed to violate noise statutes. Check your local laws, then confront the Village legislators in a civil and controlled manner. Take along a local reporter and see why the fire department can violate noise laws. A simple intercom system or paging apparatus can do the same thing this speaker system does. They need to know what a nightmare they are to their neighborhood.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      6 years ago from Southeastern United States

      EC, Yes I have read of similar problems here in the rural areas of my state. There definitely is some type of Machismo element to this entire problem with noise from emergency service providers. It honestly reminds me of children playing with loud toys. Some guys just love pushing that button. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to remind police officers working under my supervision that 6Am is not a good time to test their car's siren at the beginning of a shift in a residential area. With all of the budgetary issues at the forefront nowadays, it will take one of "US" to be elected to city government in order to get any attention to this problem. The only other remedy would be to form a neighborhood committee that will speak to the problem at your local town meetings, and your going to need some big numbers. Having an alternative method to suggest to the legislators is crucial, as their first response will be pro fire department, and they will try to dismiss you quickly. Stand firm, be prepared, and good luck with the fight.

    • profile image

      lily 

      6 years ago

      listen i live near a fire department ... one block away..it is terrible.i am not even talking of the sirene from the fire truck i am talkjng of the annoying louuuuuud sirene from the building. it goes on 3 to 5 times a day. this morning it woke me up at 9am . two days ago it woke me up at 11pm!!!!this is sooo frustrating and useless ... . i dont know what to do i was thinking going to the village and ask but like this writer said they will probably think i am anti defenders/emergency people.iam not iam just pregnant and worry how it will be when my bb will sleep ... this just so frustating.. and again useless....

    • profile image

      EC 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for your post. Could you please expand it a bit and discuss the sirens used at volunteer fire stations to "call in the fire fighters." My town uses one and there is so much drama with it. It's located downtown at the old fire station (over a mile away from new station.)

      According to the volunteers it's crucial for the job due to our hilly area. Do you have any knowledge of this type of situation.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      6 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Insightfu comments UrbanDecay. Thank you.

    • profile image

      UrbanDecay 

      6 years ago

      And people get confused when they see census numbers show a mass exodus from urban centers. On top of failing schools and crime, we are supposed to put up with all the noise from emergency responders. This all equates to a much lower quality of life. Your point about sirens blasting for a drunken person is right on target---this is the problem--sirens blasting for absolutely everything! So, we as a family say to ourselves: we have tried to stick around the city, pay our taxes, and we have compassion for others less fortunate and never felt we needed to run off to the suburbs like everyone else. But this noise/quality of life thing is serious, and we feel that we work too hard to continue to put up with it at all hours of the night. It is not always heart attack victims! Or some other sympathy-worthy issue. Around where I live, it's probably just as much drugs and drunkeness and people who use EMS as their primary care. So, we've got to go, like so many other sensible people and this is a huge part of urban decay.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      6 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thank you for the comment suziecat7.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 

      6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Great Hub on an interesting topic. Though I live in the country, I work in the city and wonder at the ear-splitting noise of sirens. That corporate greed and politics are behind this is something we never think about. Enlightening Hub - rated up and away.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      7 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thank you for the comment Icbenefield.

    • lcbenefield profile image

      lcbenefield 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Very thought provoking. Something I hadn't really thought about, just didn't realize how intrusive these noises had gotten to be. We live several hundred feet from a main highway through our small town. We hear these sirens on a regular basis at all hours. Our dogs hate sirens and bark and growl whenever one goes by. Makes for a great night sleep. Thanks for the great hub.

    • kryptowrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodney C Lawley 

      7 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thank you Moeflats and Peter for your comments. I've got to read some of your stuff Moeflats, as you seem to be quite unique. Peter, no argument with your point, but you completely missed mine.

    • Peter Owen profile image

      Peter Owen 

      7 years ago from West Hempstead, NY

      I would say that if you were the one in the amubulance after a heart attack, you might want that siren blaring to get you to the hospital faster and safer.

    • MOEFLATS profile image

      MOEFLATS 

      7 years ago

      Yup.......it got so bad for me that I actually bought a headphone amplifier and blasted the heck out of my ears with the most abrasive music I could find. The level of peace was comparable to stepping out of the 9th circle of Hell back onto the Earth. I thought I'd permanently damaged my ears, but they actually have regained full sensitivity again....so I may very well blast them until they are re-desensitized!

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