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.

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