JP Observer: Siren noise problem shouldn’t fall on deaf ears

Walking down Centre Street just after New Year’s, I was suddenly assaulted by a sound so loud it felt like someone had jabbed an ice pick in my right ear. I instinctively covered both ears, and I noticed some other pedestrians did the same. We were responding to the siren from an ambulance speeding toward the Monument.

Until recently I thought all of us had no choice—that we are just supposed to put up with high decibel shrieks as long as they are coming from emergency vehicles helping our fellow humans.

According to Pondside resident Arlene Rothman, who has started a campaign to regulate siren noise, the blasts from ambulances, fire trucks and police cars zooming down JP streets can and should be controlled.

Rothman and other local residents say they hear lots of loud ambulances going to area hospitals day and night. District E-13 police and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) have been talking about siren noise lately.

After group discussion and input from two E-13 police officers, the Jamaica Pond Association board of directors voted on Jan. 9 to support the JPNC “moving forward in its investigation of the use of sirens in JP.”

Later that week, the Jamaica Hills Association board voted unanimously “to support efforts to reduce excessive siren noise,” encouraging the JPNC and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez to take action.

The World Health Organization would probably approve. A report on its website says urban noise is a major problem that is contributing to a worldwide increase in noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Although rock concerts and earphones are the NIHL villains we usually hear about, environmental noise has negative effects on fibers in people’s ears, too.

The National Institutes of Health addresses NIHL on its website, mentioning loud traffic noise, saying that “exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss…A good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are ‘too loud’ and ‘too close’ or that last ‘too long.’”

Now, sirens from emergency vehicles are expressly unrestricted in the Boston Noise Ordinance. In 1991, noise from electronic music equipment was also unregulated, until folks from Jamaica Plain worked to get provisions passed by the City Council and the state legislature to keep the decibels reasonable.

Since 1973, New York City forbids any emergency vehicle from operating an emergency signal device (siren) that creates a sound level of 90 decibels or above 50 feet from the front of the vehicle.

Our ears cannot discriminate among loud noises that are harmful to us. It isn’t true that what helps some neighbors necessarily has to harm others’ health and rob them of peaceful enjoyment of their lives.

Various places have various rules about siren noise. Many technical questions still need to be addressed. Research needs to be done. Lots of people should be included in the process. Then, the Boston Noise Ordinance needs to be updated to regulate sirens, and procedures should be set for implementing and enforcing new rules.

13 comments for “JP Observer: Siren noise problem shouldn’t fall on deaf ears

  1. MMoore
    January 26, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks to Sandy Storey,
    Arlene Rothman and the Jamaica Pond Association for raising the issue of
    “emergency” sirens.  The biggest noise
    polluters by far are the ambulances, who regularly ruin an otherwise pleasant
    walk along Jamaica Pond. Some of these ambulances appear to be merely ferrying
    patients between hospitals, but, when faced with Pond area traffic, they turn on
    their sirens.

    I would like to know
    who regulates the use of emergency sirens by public and private ambulances, and
    what, if any, regulations exist. The endless sound of sirens can destroy the
    quality of life and home-values in an area like Jamaica Plain. Is this the
    price we want to pay in order to make an ambulance drivers trip from the
    Faulkner Hospital to the Medical Area a little quicker?

    Drivers should be
    required to justify their use of a siren to their superiors and on-board
    equipment should record frequency and decibels.   Running late due to traffic does not
    constitute an emergency.

  2. CM
    January 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    If people paid attention and they would move or pull to the right and stop yeilding to an emergency vehicle responding which i believe to still law and someone regulated a upper volume in car stereos so that a siren could be heard I beleave that would decrease the use of sirens. But, no one does. Just imagine that you or your loved one(s) are hurt, ill, a victim of a crime , or your home is burning the siren lets you know help Is coming and near. I as a operator of an emergency vehicle also don’t care for the sounds of sirens I’d add that most of us don’t like the sound either. You at most hear the sound for 30 seconds yes it’s loud but we have to hear it all day and we are aware first hand how loud they are Thanks for your concerns of us too and not just your neighborhood. Think … These newer cars are nearly sound proof can they hear or see the responding units. Between cell phones gps units, stereos and you multi taskers you fail to see us coming. We are here for YOU. When’s the last time you thought of our safety.

  3. Mike G.
    January 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    An absolutely amazing article.  Does the whining and complaining by the liberal elite of this city never end?  Watch some of the traffic that goes by on a daily basis.  Watch as these emergency vehicles have to deal with drivers on cell phones, drivers texting, stereos so loud that the folks in the car don’t hear the emergency vehicles coming.  Watch as the drivers just stop, pull to the left instead of the right, everything except pull to the right and stop as dictated by the Mass General traffic Laws. And then there are the pedestrians, not just on Centre Street but all over the city who are so self absorbed with their cell phones and I-Pods that they just step out into oncoming traffic – and not just at the multiple crosswalks but anywhere they choose.  The sirens have become louder and the lights brighter for a reason.  But hey, you probably signed the petition to get rid of the cannons in the Charlestown Navy Yard as well.  Another Liberal busy body with nothing to occupy their time.

    • Guest
      January 28, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      How is this a concern of the ‘liberal elite?’ Your stereotypes are showing.

  4. Medic109
    January 24, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    You might find that the ambulance sirens already meet the Federal KKK 1822 specifications of the GSA which meet and exceed(are lower) than the NYC requirements. In addition are you willing to accept delayed responses of these vital services, and these urban conditions have existed prior to your choice of residence, if the conditions are spo problematic there are alternative choices of enviroment for residence. But if you picj a more bucolic location I have no doubt you’ll complain about the hsitoric pig farm which most likely abuts

  5. Granola and NUTS
    January 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Assaulted by a siren?  Now, what is your solution for ambulances responding to a child in cardiac arrest?  Police responding to woman being assaulted at Jamaica Pond?  I suppose Ms. Rothman and Ms. Storey are the same people that would complain that it took too long for an emergency response when they call 911.  I agree with Stick a finger in it,  stop your whining, and stick a finger in it!

  6. Ciw127
    January 24, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I’m absolutely amazed at this story. You don’t get it! The siren isn’t there to annoy people it is there to get vehicles to move out of the way so that the ambulance or fire truck  can get to that person’s dead mother on the floor within 4 minutes in order to try and save her, the response is where EVERY second counts. Going to every priority one call is an emergency until you get there and see what you have and then the condition of the patient dictates whether you use the siren or not on the way to the hospital. So the next time you get in your soundproof car with the stereo blasting think how loud the siren would have to be to penetrate your cacoon. Sirens have become so ineffective at penetrating into the new cars that some systems have installed ground effect units called rumblers to try and get the drivers attention. Or think of it this way, You are successful in quieting the sirens, so while you are there, bleeding out, or can’t breath or having chestpains wondering where the hell the ambulance is, they’ll be in traffic quietly trying to get to you in time to save your lifef. They may not make it but at least they won’t hurt your hearing.

  7. EMT Guy
    January 24, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    By state law, any time the emergency lights are on the siren is supposed to be run continuously

  8. stick a finger in it
    January 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    I’m sorry but can people find something else to whine and complain about other than fire truck sirens?  It’s part of life!  If sirens are bothering you so much, why don’t you just stick a finger in your ear. 

  9. Barbara Hatfield
    January 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for this informative article.  It was a shock to learn that the Boston Noise Ordinance does not regulate sirens.  And let’s get on with it.  What political process is required to update the Ordinance?  City Council?  Mayor, by Executive Order?  Or, must the City  get a home rule petition on the matter from the State Legislature?  Please let’s not get bogged down with too many meetings and too many high decibel shouting matches on this matter.  Meanwhile, I guess we can wear ear plugs to reduce the injury to our hearing from the sirens.  

    • Anonymous
      February 2, 2012 at 12:12 pm

      Or you can just maybe, you know, check first to see if the siren decibel level already meets or exceeds safety levels set federally or by other states, which this article so thoughtfully leaves out.  In which case wasting the public’s and our elected officials time with an ordinance that will effectively to nothing is more offensive than this siren issue.

  10. Ron Paulus
    January 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Quality of life in our area of Jamaica Plain is suffering from the continuous blasting of sirens coming from ambulances on a daily basis.  So many ambulances, each with its own excessive decibel level, cannot truly reflect “real emergencies” heading to the Faulkner Hospital on a daily basis. No hospital can reasonably be expected to handle so many emergencies on a daily basis.  The noise is excessive and it is wielded as a weapon against residents with dubious benefit for any patient.  Can reduction of noise be accomplished without compromising the safety of patients being carried to hospitals?  The problem has been studied by careful analysis and noise reduction has been accomplished in other cities, including New York.  Boston should do its own research and look at that of other cities and end the excessive and indiscriminate practice here.

  11. Anonymous
    January 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Before writing this story, did you contact local ambulance companies to see if they already have a policy in place regarding use of a siren in residential neighborhoods?  Or at night?  Did you test the current volume of the sirens?  Do they meet the standards of the NYC example you gave?  What if that same siren you said hurt your ears registered under 90dB at 50 feet?
    I can tell you right now that I have never in my 33 years on this earth ever been annoyed that I heard an emergency vehicle siren.  It could wake me up in the middle of the night and i’d still think “if that vehicle was coming to help me, they better damn well have that siren on”.  It’s meant for your safety (get out of the way!), the responders safety (get out of our way!) and the safety of the persons they are responding to.  The point is the siren comes and goes, usually in an instant.  Take a dB meter into any crowded restaurant in the city and I bet you are doing way more damage to your ears than a 2 second ambulance siren.

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