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You Can Always Count On New York City

You Can Always Count On New York City

For dumb ideas, that is.

NY considers changing sound of first responder sirens

NEW YORK — If two New York City lawmakers get their way, the long, droning siren from police cars, fire trucks and ambulances that has been part of the city’s soundtrack for generations — WAAAAAhhhhhhh — would be replaced by a high-low wail similar to what’s heard on the streets of London and Paris — WEE-oww-WEE-oww-WEE-oww.

Their reasons for the switch: The European-style siren is less shrill and annoying and contributes less to noise pollution.

People frequently complain about siren noise.That is until they need the people who are riding in those noisy machines are coming to help them. Then it’s the sweetest sound in the world.

I also remember when the use of the “European High Low” sound was discouraged because it was too European and disturbed some people who had left there in the wake of World War II. Most of those people are gone and to be frank, I never met a person who complained about that. Still, it is ironic in a way.

I also remember a woman who complained about the “Yelp” siren that was very popular at one time. Her contention was that the sound bounced off of buildings in Sort of Big City differently than the long wail that the two New York City “law makers” are complaining about.

“Europeanizing” New York sirens would not change the decibel level — still topping out at roughly 118 — but would lower the frequency and thus make the sirens less shrill but still ear-catching enough to grab attention.

“The alternating high-low siren required by this legislation is not as piercing,” adds co-sponsor Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan Democrat.

Since the purpose of the siren is to warn other motorists than an emergency vehicle is approaching, I have to wonder if this is a plus. Modern cars are very well sound proofed and sirens often can’t be heard inside. I’m probably a bit more alert for this sort of thing than most motorists, but it’s still easy not to hear a siren until the vehicle is very close.

That’s what the “Rumbler” siren does. It’s so low pitched that it shakes the ground in front of the emergency vehicle. Think of some of the knuckleheads you see (and hear) driving by with their car stereos blasting at 800 db and “bass” at maximum. Same concept only the speakers are mounted outside the vehicle.

One of the ambulances I was assigned to way back, well about 10 years back, had an early version of the Rumbler. It was not only effective at moving traffic in front of us, but I discovered that it drove an annoying partner of mine crazy when I used it. 🙂

At community board meetings, Mount Sinai’s Emergency Medical Services Director Joseph Davis played various siren options to find out which one locals preferred.

“People hated them all,” Davis said, “but the ‘high-low’ was least intrusive. It didn’t have that piercing sound.”

I repeat, the piercing sound is a feature, not a bug. Besides, half the pedestrians I see have ear buds stuck in their ears and can’t hear anything anyway.

Half the drivers I see these days seem to have their heads firmly planted somewhere else and don’t hear or see anything outside of their vehicles.

I don’t know if New York City will pass this “law”, but it won’t surprise me if it does happen.

It also won’t surprise me if it doesn’t change the number of complaints about siren noise by the self absorbed citizens of the city.

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After a long career as a field EMS provider, I'm now doing all that back office stuff I used to laugh at. Life is full of ironies, isn't it? I still live in the Northeast corner of the United States, although I hope to change that to another part of the country more in tune with my values and beliefs. I still write about EMS, but I'm adding more and more non EMS subject matter. Thanks for visiting.


  1. I can completely believe that there is a different sound that would work better than the average emergency vehicle siren. There’s data (for example) that shows that the piercing “BEEP BEEP BEEP” such as is used by backup beepers on large vehicles isn’t actually as effective as it could be, and that other sounds may work better. But yah, whatever they use needs to be loud and obnoxious enough to get people’s attention. I also bet that whatever “new” sound they pick will work well for a while, and then will also start decreasing in effectiveness, as people get used to it again. Maybe they need to program a siren that changes its noises periodically.

    • Once upon a time I knew a man who was a sound engineer of some sort. Not recording, but he worked on mitigating sounds from industrial processes and construction sites. He told me that he had more complaints about the back up alarms than jack hammers, diesel engines, or cranes. So, no only are they not all that effective, they are obnoxious.

      Which I suppose we could say about politicians as well! 😉


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