loud town

Redesigning the Siren

What if the piercing wail of emergency vehicles was replaced by something else altogether?

Illustration: Michele Febbraio
Illustration: Michele Febbraio

Many New Yorkers revel in the city’s ambient rumble — the thump of a bass echoing between buildings, the slap of domino tiles on a card table, the growl of off-road bikes rushing down the block. Some even claim they need the noise to fall asleep. They may be quick to label Abby Rhinehart, who moved to New York two years ago and has called 311 several times about their noisy neighborhood, an outsider trying to kill the city’s vibe. Rhinehart is aware of the stereotype; after all, they’re a white, middle-class, out-of-state transplant living in Washington Heights, a historically Latino and immigrant neighborhood where bachata and stoop conversations and block parties are a constant.

But Rhinehart doesn’t mind the music or the parties, and they’ve given up on calling 311. It’s the sirens that paralyze them. Noise has always disoriented Rhinehart: As a child actor, they would leave the set exhausted by the acoustic feedback from mics and speakers, and the tick-tock of every clock nearby made it hard for them to sleep most nights. As a teen, Rhinehart could hear sounds like dog whistles when no one else could. “I truly thought for a little while that I was experiencing auditory hallucinations,” they say. 

It wasn’t until 2021 — when the constant wail of sirens in their neighborhood would leave them “doubled over and holding my ears like a small child” — that they went to a doctor to see if something else was wrong and were diagnosed with autism. Now, Rhinehart knows why an ambulance passing by feels like a physical attack, and are always prepared to wear noise-canceling headphones to avoid triggering a meltdown. They’re hardly alone. In 2020, Washington Heights, along with Inwood, was one of the neighborhoods that logged the most 311 noise complaints in Manhattan. There are several anti-noise organizations in the area, including one called Sirenity, which successfully petitioned to change the sound of Mount Sinai’s ambulances. Rhinehart’s neighborhood also has a local volunteer committee dedicated to the issue, the Wahi-Inwood Task Force on Noise, which has more than 150 Facebook members who meet regularly.

The city’s noise code states that the maximum volume of a siren can be no louder than 90 decibels to someone 50 feet away. While the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the NYPD enforce the noise code, the police department refuses to comment about how sirens are monitored. The DEP also states that the code does not apply to emergency vehicles. However, thanks to the canyon effect of living among high-rises, the volume of a siren might wake people sleeping 20 floors up. Routine exposure to anything above 80 decibels (about the sound level of being inside a car in midtown traffic) can cause hearing damage.

But what most worries Tanya Bonner — who has lived in Washington Heights since 2006 and volunteers as the chair of the local anti-noise task force — are the long-term effects of noise. Constant blaring sounds can deteriorate a community’s health. Besides hearing loss, noise pollution has been linked to high blood pressure, sleep disruption, and stress, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. As Bonner says: “People’s nervous systems and bodies are not able to rest. They’re always in a state of fight or flight.” She says she herself feels exhausted by the din of the neighborhood.

In June, the City Council introduced two bills to quiet the sirens. One bill, sponsored by Councilmember Gale Brewer, proposes to add a device to emergency vehicles that would emit a low-frequency pulse, already used in the U.K. and across the U.S., that drivers can feel instead of hear. The second bill, sponsored by Councilmember Carlina Rivera, aims to replace the blaring New York siren with the lower-frequency two-tone siren popular in Europe. (You can hear it here.) These measures might seem small and practical, but they aren’t as straightforward as one might think: Rivera’s bill never got a hearing last year and also failed to advance in 2019, when she co-sponsored a similar one.

“We know how to correct the problem,” says Arline Bronzaft, professor emerita of psychology at the City University of New York and a leading researcher on noise pollution. “We have the ways. We don’t have the will.”

In Harlem, JoAnn Scott has been campaigning against sirens for years alongside Bonner, visiting area hospitals and emergency rooms to request they reduce their volume. The 70-year-old retired teacher has spent the last 35 years in her building, but she says the last ten have been unbearable. About five years ago, after noticing that she couldn’t hear clearly anymore, she went to an audiologist, who diagnosed her with noise sensitivity and hearing loss. But despite needing hearing aids, she can’t use them because they amplify the shriek of the sirens. Some days, she may hear three sirens in an hour. A good day is when two hours pass without any emergency-vehicle noise.

Twenty minutes into our conversation, I hear a siren. “All of our windows are closed,” she tells me. Her proximity to hospitals, emergency rooms, and drug-treatment centers is a factor, Scott says, but so are nearby thoroughfares. She leaves the neighborhood most days to escape the sirens, heading to the New York Botanical Garden or St. Agnes Library on the Upper West Side.

The problem is not just in Washington Heights or Harlem, of course. Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side and the East Village, has received nearly 30 complaints related to siren noise so far this year. Since introducing the bill in June, she has heard from over 100 New Yorkers expressing their support for it: One voice actor shared that they have to stop recording sessions every time a siren passes by. Another person in Greenpoint wrote, “You can hear a Manhattan heart attack in Brooklyn,” claiming that Manhattan sirens reach Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods.

Rivera also knows that what the bills propose isn’t impossible. European-style sirens are already used in Mt. Sinai ambulances. But there are some vocal opponents. The National Police Association condemned them as yet “another foolish maneuver and power grab by politicians hell-bent on devaluing law enforcement’s crucial purpose and life-saving feats while also forfeiting common sense.” Councilmember Joann Ariola, representing District 32 in Queens, told the New York Post, “We need to be taking measures to save lives here, and the louder sirens can give emergency personnel a few extra, potentially vital seconds to get to a victim and successfully rescue them.”

Last year, when Rivera brought forward the same bill, the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, Resiliency, and Waterfronts never advanced it to a hearing. She says the council was concerned about how to implement it, so she’s been focused on meeting with hospitals, unions, the NYPD, and the Fire Department about how to phase in these vehicle changes over time.

Matt Zavadsky, an EMT and the at-large director for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, says the proposed two-tone siren and rumbler in the bills are pretty universal across the U.S. Most emergency vehicles are already outfitted with both options, he says. In fact, he doesn’t think the bills go far enough. He advocates for limiting lights and sirens to prevent crashes and protect both workers and the public, using them only for actual emergencies where every minute makes a difference. Many national groups have taken this stance.

“The vast majority of 911 calls are not time-critical emergencies, so the fact that we are putting the public and ourselves at risk to get to a call where one or two or three minutes isn’t going to make a difference in the patient’s outcome is just ludicrous,” Zavadsky says. “The ambulance that never gets to your call can’t help you.” A 2014 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that ambulances triggered an average of 4,500 car accidents a year between 1992 and 2011.

It’s worth noting that in Europe, two-tone sirens haven’t eliminated its noise problem entirely. Road traffic remains the continent’s leading source of noise pollution, according to a 2020 report from the European Environment Agency. An estimated 12,000 people die prematurely a year in Europe due to long-term exposure.

But as someone who grew up on the Lower East Side, Rivera says that any step to reduce the higher rates of hypertension among Black and Latino New Yorkers is critical to public-health equity. A 2015 University of Michigan study found that reducing noise by even five decibels could decrease a community’s prevalence of hypertension by 1.4 percent and coronary heart disease by 1.8 percent — that’s approximately 279,000 fewer cases.

And for those forced to change their routines and even leave their neighborhoods because of the parade of ambulances, the prospect of a quieter siren represents something much bigger. “It would mean nights of actual deeper rest. It would mean less pain in my body. It would mean more energy to enjoy life here and to be able to go out and walk through the park and enjoy everything this city has to offer,” says Rhinehart. “It would literally be life-changing for me.”

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Redesigning the Siren