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