Tag Archives: emergency vehicle sirens

Siren Noise Reduction Strategies

By Dom Nozzi

Emergency vehicle sirens (such as firetrucks and ambulances) have become an enormous source of town center noise pollution. So much so as to have created a 24/7 “war zone” atmosphere which is so intolerable that it chases untold numbers of otherwise interested town center residents to suburban locations. Such sirens are, of course, highly detrimental to the quality of life of those who remain in the town center.

Siren noise pollution has grown exponentially in recent times in part because of the ever-higher decibel levels of the sirens, the absence of leadership in elected office throughout the US (in this case exemplified by elected officials not having the wisdom or courage to control excessive siren use), and the growth in the number of events that lead such vehicle occupants to deploy sirens.

Another important factor that leads to siren overuse is the “safetyism” sickness. “Safetyism” is a term used by sociologist Jonathan Haidt to describe the concept of extreme suboptimizing on safety that we see particularly in the US. So extreme that in important ways overemphasis on safety has – ironically – undermined safety (for example, by reducing natural human defense/immune systems) and so destroyed community peace and quiet that it has severely degraded quality of life.

An important reason why sirens are used excessively in our communities is that almost none of us think we can do anything about it (or that we think doing so will harm public safety).

In fact, many communities have shown that it IS possible to limit siren noise to tolerable levels, and that doing so has no impact on public safety.

Emergency vehicles can use alternating high pitch/low pitch sirens, as is done in much of Europe.

Government regulation can obligate a reduction in the maximum allowable decibel level for sirens (decibel levels are much higher now than they were in the past), or set an upper limit on how loud sirens can be.

Local government policy can require that no continuous siren use is allowed during the entirety of an emergency vehicle run. Sirens are only allowed when there is a vehicle ahead which is obstructing the emergency vehicle, or when the emergency vehicle is approaching a red light at a signalized intersection.

Local government policy can require that no siren be used by an ambulance when transporting a patient that does not have a medical emergency.

Local government policy can require that emergency vehicles are only allowed to use major access routes when such routes contain few or no residences along the route.

To create disincentives for emergency vehicles to overuse their sirens, local government policy can require that emergency vehicles have siren decibel levels be as high inside the vehicle as outside the vehicle.

If there is insufficient leadership in elected office, a half-step toward siren sanity is to keep the status quo, but implement some or all of above tactics between 10 pm and 6 am.

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Noise Pollution Assaulting Our Greenville SC Home is Intolerable

By Dom Nozzi

I’m sorry, but I’ve had it with the house we bought a few weeks ago in Greenville SC. The noise pollution coming from nearby Butler Avenue is three times higher than any I’ve ever experienced in all the places I have lived. And the fact that we have emergency vehicle sirens screaming down Butler multiple times a day makes an already unacceptable noise problem SIGNIFICANTLY worse. The unbearable noise is degrading the property values of all homes near Butler. Complaints have arisen from more than one of my neighbors about the sirens. My stress level is skyrocketing. The unending noise is making me short-tempered, hostile and a generally unpleasant person to be around. I find myself angrily screaming at my partner Maggie on many occasions. And I have been obligated to wear ear plugs in several instances – that is, when I cannot suppress the stubborn desire to sit on my front porch to read.

I did not sign up for this.

The professional literature, as an aside, shows a clear connection between noise pollution, and a number of medical and societal maladies such as high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, depression, inability to engage in conversation, foul mood, fatigue, loss of sleep, anger, poor concentration, productivity losses at the workplace, cognitive impairment, tinnitus, hearing loss, and failed relationships.

We also know from many studies that excessive noise leads to a substantial decline in residential and retail property values. One inequitable, downwardly spiraling aspect of this are studies showing that homeowners abandon their porches and other rooms near the roaring roadway and incrementally migrate toward rooms as far from the inhospitable, anti-urban road as possible – in other words, a flight from the front of the house to the back of the house.

To add insult to injury, I must also mention that every afternoon we have a high-speed, very loud convoy of 25 to 35 USPS vans racing down our street to get to the big USPS facility down the street from us. The mail delivery employees are racing to end their shifts for the day. I have gone to the USPS facility five times and requested that I be able to speak to the postmaster about having the vans redirected one block off of our street so that they use two larger roads – two non-residential, commercial streets – instead of our residential street. Each time I’ve spoken to staff at the USPS, I am told it is not possible to redirect the vans off of our street, even though this is clearly possible. And clearly called for, given the noise pollution and safety hazards posed by the speeding vans. Each time I ask to speak to a supervisor and each time I am assured I will get a call back from the postmaster. I have still not gotten a call.

Maggie and I have started to place our garbage carts near the middle of our street in a “tactical urbanism” effort to slow down speeding vehicles (it is not just the USPS vans) on the street to slower, safer, quieter speeds.

A few days ago, I met a Greenville elected official for the first time, and complained to him about the out of control siren use in the city by emergency vehicles. I’m sure that went in one ear and out the other.

Yesterday I posted a note to the neighborhood Nextdoor email list that I would like to hear from anyone that knows of a house in the neighborhood that will be listed for sale in the future. My quest is to move to a home that is not being severely degraded by noise pollution the way my newly-purchased home is being degraded.

As an aside, I believe that like the requirement that new homeowners be warned that they are buying a home affected by such natural hazards as a floodplain, it should now also be required by law that homebuyers be warned that they are buying a home that is being regularly subjected to extreme levels of noise pollution.

I have professional and academic expertise in noise control, as I have advanced degrees in town planning, transportation, and environmental science. This led my former employer to have me prepare a noise control ordinance for a city with a larger population than Greenville. I am very well aware of the fact that those living in or near a town center need to expect a higher ambient noise level. That is a basic, understandable trade-off for living in a town center that offers the convenience of many nearby destinations.

On the other hand, I am also well aware of the fact that our society has far higher levels of noise pollution than are necessary for a city. Levels that have been worsening severely over the past several decades (my research has led to me to learn that noise pollution is one of the very few forms of pollution we are losing ground over). It is simply not true that a functioning, healthy city must accept the ever-worsening levels of noise pollution that city dwellers are now subjected to.

Healthy cities, in fact, can and do function much better with far lower levels of noise pollution. For starters, it is well known that public safety and economic health are in no way jeopardized by a reduction in the deafening roar of ever louder and almost continuous emergency vehicle sirens. Nor is city health in any way compromised when we install effective traffic calming tools to slow speeding motor vehicles (motor vehicles are by far the leading source of urban noise pollution). Effective tools? On-street metered parking. Road diets. Landscaped bulb-outs. Raised medians. Chicanes. Canopy street trees. Shorter signal lights, signs, and street lights. Smaller turning radii.

As I understand it, a number of homeowners in our vicinity (likely including the former owners of our home) were not able to continue tolerating the noise and danger problems associated with motor vehicles. Rather than do what most all citizens do – which is to decide “there is nothing that can be done about noise pollution, so we will continue to accept lower and lower quality of life expectations” – some in our vicinity have opted to sell their homes so they can move to a place without a 24/7 roar. I have learned both academically and professionally that countless citizens either leave a home in or near a town center, or never consider living in such a location due to their (accurate) perception that cities are failing to do anything to stem ever-worsening noise pollution, vehicle danger, and oversized, unsafe roadways that are (unnecessarily) severely degrading our town centers.

Across the street from us, the City inexplicitly allowed a financial institution to install a four-lane, 24-hour-a-day drive-through. The parking lot on the other side of the bank is a vast, sea-of-asphalt parking lot that dwarfs the size of the bank, and as Donald Shoup says (see his The High Cost of Free Parking), artificially breeds far more car trips than would have occurred had there not been such an oversized, free-to-use parking lot. This highway oriented breeder of day- and night-long car traffic in front of our home pumps toxic fumes onto our front porch all the time. It has produced queues of cars hundreds of feel long in front of our house. And it regularly brings in drivers completely distracted, as I see many filling out their deposit or withdrawal forms as they approach the drive-through. This is particularly unsafe when the driver is in a hurry. Or when seniors or children are on the sidewalk. The design of the financial institution is much better suited to a 10-lane suburban strip commercial roadway than a neighborhood and what should be its safe and quiet streets. Indeed, there is very little that is more UN-neighborly than the design of this bank.

I do not at all believe it is unreasonable to expect to be able to live in a half-million dollar house (or even a more modestly-priced house, for that matter) that does not suffer from deafening roadway noise 24/7. In fact, such an expectation is a basic, fundamental human right. A right that is being unceasingly violated – mostly by a failure to control dangerous, noisy suburban design in the urban area.

All of this is unacceptable.

For a number of days now, I’ve started looking online for houses for sale in the neighborhood. By far my leading criterion for a house to buy is that the home is at least one or two blocks away from a major car sewer highway. It is not just the high-speed freeway near our home. I have also learned there are other roads in Greenville acting like dangerous, deafening interstate beltways: Academy, Pete Hollis, Buncombe, Augusta, McDaniel, Stone, Rutherford, Poinsett, Pleasantburg, and Laurens.

I need to be able to find a home at least a block or two from all of these ruinous highways. Countless other homeowners and renters in Greenville have arrived at the same conclusion. The long-term result of the creation of these monster roads – besides inducing large numbers of deadly crashes and ramping up the number of trips that must be made by car – is a decline and residential abandonment of homes in neighborhoods near these over-sized roadways.

Each time such roads are created, their effect is not unlike the impact of aerial bombing runs on the nearby neighborhoods. Each time elected officials make a decision to install such highways, they are in effect destroying nearby neighborhoods that have the misfortune to be close to such roadways, and are also condemning their city with a future of declining property tax revenues, a growing number of motor vehicle crashes, increasing noise pollution, a decline in walking, bicycling and transit use, and an increasing levels of motor vehicle use.

In sum, such decisions show that these elected officials are engaged in serious malfeasance as elected officials, and should be removed from office.

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Controlling Noise Pollution

By Dom Nozzi

Emergency Medical Services (EMS) vehicle sirens are an enormous noise pollution problem in cities and it is getting worse all the time. Motor vehicles (not just EMS) are the biggest source of noise pollution in cities.

Motor vehicle noise pollution goes way down when car speeds are lowered using traffic calming design for streets.

Studies show that neighborhoods tend to notice traffic being a problem far more if motor vehicle speeds are high compared to car volumes being high. In other words, high car speeds are much more of a nuisance and danger than high volumes of cars.

Controlling sirens, unfortunately, is extremely politically difficult. Which elected official, for example, wants to be seen as being in favor of babies dying in burning buildings? Some communities, however, have been fortunate to have elected true leaders who successfully demand their fire chiefs and cops and medical service administrators reduce the frequency and volume of sirens, and the type of calls that require use of sirens. This essential and growing need to reduce excessive high-volume siren use is particularly important at night and in residential areas.

Failure to establish policies that create a more tolerable (ie, more modest) level of siren use is essential for protecting quality of life in a city.

Flashing lights should be seen as sufficient in most of the mileage traveled by EMS vehicles. Controlling the size of fire trucks and buses, by the way, is also very important for improving community safety.

With excessive, high-volume siren use, a community can seem to be in a war zone, and it is probably not be a coincidence that “war zone” siren use helps artificially amplify citizen perception that crime and fires and medical emergencies are extremely rampant and out of control. By artificially inducing this sort of citizen hysteria, elected officials are more likely to feel the political pressure to pump ever more government revenue into these emergency service departments to contend with what is likely to be seen as a widespread and growing number of emergencies that seem to be raging in the community.

This all-too-common response tends to lead to a self-perpetuating downward spiral of ever-increasing allocation of public dollars to address what appears to be an intractable and substantial public safety concern – a concern that tends to be disconnected to real-world safety concerns because it is based more on excessive siren use than on actual safety issues.

It might very well be the case that controlling siren noise in the ways I suggest above is not feasible for the foreseeable future in a society that has gone overboard on safety. Ironically, going overboard on public safety tends to REDUCE overall public safety in several ways.

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Suggestions for Reducing Noise Pollution in Asheville NC

By Dom Nozzi

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Asheville, North Carolina in the fall of 2020 is that Asheville is an extremely noisy city – perhaps the noisiest city I have ever visited or lived in. The high noise levels, of course, lowers the quality of life in Asheville to a point that is far below the quality of life the city could provide.

Indirectly, this strongly degrades the financial health of the city because many of us now know that high quality of life is a powerful economic engine for cities – and conversely, that a low quality of life leads to economic ruin.

Public health is also severely compromised, as chronic noise pollution is known to cause a great many health problems.

I believe for Asheville to make meaningful strides toward being a much quieter city, it needs to establish a four-pronged approach:

1.       While adopting a quality noise ordinance is important, it is much more important to adequately fund enforcement of noise management codes by hiring and maintaining a full-time noise management staff running an independent noise management office and maintaining noise management patrolling throughout Asheville. As would be the case in any city, Asheville police are always going to give noise enforcement a lower level of priority when compared to crimes such as burglary or murder, which is an important reason why the police should not be the enforcement agency.

2.       Policy adopted by Council and implemented by department heads is needed to ensure that city services such as emergency response are promoting the achievement of City noise reduction goals. Emergency vehicle sirens are overused in nearly all US cities, and causes an enormous amount of noise pollution. Bloomington IN is one of a number of cities I know of that – at least when I briefly lived there in 2008 — effectively reduced emergency siren use through the adoption of department policy.

3.       Zoning amendments and new prohibitions are needed to prohibit inherently and nearly continuously loud motor vehicle service, repair, large truck deliveries, and car washing from being located within, say, 300 feet of homes. Existing services in violation of this would become non-conforming and would receive on-going guidance from staff on how to operate more quietly. A noise ordinance is not, by itself, sufficient to manage this problem without a spacing requirement provided by zoning. Prohibitions need to be considered for relatively high-level noise polluting devices such as leaf blowers and burglar alarms. These might be location-specific prohibitions, more stringent time-of-day restrictions for blowers, and three-strikes-and-you’re-out enforcement for too many false alarms.

4.       Capital projects to address what is by far the largest source of noise pollution in Asheville: motor vehicles. Motor vehicle noise pollution is the main reason Asheville is relatively noisy, and it is due primarily to oversized roads such as Broadway, Merrimon, Biltmore, Charlotte, and Patton, as well as a number of Interstate highways in the Asheville area – particularly I-240. Because higher-speed vehicle travel directly translates into higher levels of noise pollution, traffic calming measures for several Asheville roads is essential to meaningfully reduce Asheville noise pollution – particularly those I mention above. The most powerful way to calm traffic (that is, induce meaningfully slower, quieter, safer, more attentive motor vehicle travel) is to remove excessive travel lanes. Most commonly this means taking an existing 4- or 5-lane road to 3 lanes (2 travel lanes and a turn lane). Calming should also include horizontal reductions such as narrowing travel lanes, woonerfs in the town center (such as Wall Street), landscaped bulb-outs, chicanes, speed tables, adding on-street parking, and using human-scaled signal lights such as post-mounted traffic signals (and street lights no taller than 14 feet) in the town center. Vertical interventions such as speed humps are undesirable for many reasons – particularly for emergency vehicles and increased noise pollution. Note that the new administration at the Federal level has signaled interest in converting urban interstates into boulevards. Asheville should use its legislative lobby to urge a Federal or State project to convert I-240 to a boulevard as a first-in-line case study. In the interim – or even if conversion to a boulevard does not occur – homes and businesses within relatively high sound contours of I-240 need to be protected from noise pollution by constructing noise-canceling sound walls along I-240.

Note that very few Asheville citizens know much at all about noises which are currently illegal. And even less know who to call to file a complaint. Others are not sufficiently assertive to complain, or often feel their complaint is not worthy of enforcement. This is all the more reason to maintain full-time staff who patrol the city.

Like nearly all other cities in America, noise pollution is about the only form of pollution that we are losing ground in controlling. Such pollution has been growing increasingly worse – particularly with advances in various safety, convenience, motor vehicle, and entertainment technologies.

It is important for Asheville to be serious about protecting and promoting its quality of life. Leadership is necessary to prevent further erosion in that quality due to growing noise pollution. Not showing assertive leadership in achieving necessary noise management goals will lead to a significant decline in economic health, tax revenue, and public health.

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Gainesville Florida Joins Many Cities in Promoting Suburban Sprawl

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2005

I wrote the following essay at 4 a.m. in 2005, “inspired” by my rage after being woken up, once again, to the infuriating sound of a vacuum truck vacuuming the large asphalt parking lot in a nearby shopping center. The vacuuming had been an on-going outrage that the City of Gainesville was unwilling to address.

What are the primary causes of “suburban sprawl”? In general, it is recognized that widespread ownership of cars, abundant free parking and free-to-use roads, combined with the construction and widening of urban highways, the footloose nature of employers, the desire for larger yards for children to play in, and rising incomes, have been important influences that have led people to flee the city.

In Gainesville in 2005, it was commonly pointed out that the flight from in-town neighborhoods in recent years was driven primarily by two problems: (1) A high crime rate (or at least a perception of a high rate); and (2) Poor quality public schools.

Unfortunately, five additional problems had emerged in Gainesville and a great many other communities in America — factors that are probably most noticeable in neighborhoods near the town center. Problems that mostly originated from service tasks that originate in the town center. Problems that I believe are influencing people living in or near the town center to “pull up the stakes” and move out to sprawlsville.

  1. The Vacuum Truck. At a frequency of three or four times each week back in 2005 (I do not know if this assault on nighttime peace and quiet continues to this day), I was awakened sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. on a regular basis by the high-pitched whine of a vacuum truck. The truck was hired by shopping centers in and near the town center to vacuum their enormous asphalt parking lots. This work — akin to the sound of a dentists’ drill — usually lasted about 30 minutes, but can sometimes go on for over an hour.

Part of the problem was the Gainesville noise ordinance, which I had written a few years earlier in my role as a town planner for Gainesville. To deal with the problem of officers not having a noise meter or not being trained to use one during a violation, I inserted a “plainly audible” rule, that allows a “reasonable person” (such as an officer) to determine, by listening, that the noise is plainly disturbing from a distance in excess of 200 feet. Unfortunately, despite this standard being upheld around the country, a Florida court had recently rejected it.

A second problem was that the vacuum truck produced a high-pitched whine that, while annoying, probably did not exceed the decibel limits in the ordinance. The remedy was to amend the ordinance to establish “octave band” limits used by a number of other cities. What this would mean, however, is more expensive meters would be needed, and more training for our officers.

Unlike in the relatively open, dispersed land use patterns found in sprawl locations, those living in or near town centers tend to be so near other homes, shops and services that noise pollution is much more of a problem. The utter inability of Gainesville and many other American cities to control the unbearable, on-going noise bombardment of vacuum trucks into nearby neighborhoods, then, is a guarantee that the flight to sprawlsville will continue at its high rate.

  1. The Malathion Truck. Each summer, I dreaded the “hissing sound” when I lived in my in-town neighborhood in Gainesville. It was a sound that forced me to leap to my feet, dash to the windows, and shut them before The Malathion Truck passed by — invading the outdoor and indoor air with a sickly-sweet smell of the Malathion pesticide. Among other things, I was forced to frantically shut the windows because the spray gave me headaches.

I realize the truck is used to try to kill mosquitoes, but I have an environmental mosquitomainpic01science degree, which gives me the knowledge that if we want to control mosquitoes, such spraying is about as effective as spraying water vapor.

I’m concerned that spraying might make the mosquito problem worse over time, since it could be harmful to the critters in our neighborhood that naturally feed on mosquitoes.

Again, unlike in the dispersed, outlying sprawl neighborhood locations, those of us living in or near town centers tend to be much more likely to be inflicted with toxic pesticides sprayed into the air we breath. (remember the old adage: “The solution to pollution is dilution”?). The practice of Gainesville to engage in frequent spraying of toxins into the relatively confined spaces of town center neighborhoods is, again a guarantee that many will be chased to sprawlsville.

  1. The Banner Planes. Each fall, during the college football season, Gainesville’s in-town neighborhoods are frequently treated to the loud, low-flying sound of the “banner planes” — planes dragging large advertisements over the thousands of fans at the UF football stadium during games. Loud, flying billboards on a Saturday afternoon inflict terrible noise pollution into town center neighborhoods on each and every football weekend.

The City of Gainesville is not allowed to regulate planes, due to federal law. The result, once more, is another reason to relocate to the relatively quiet sprawl locations.

  1. Emergency Vehicle Sirens. Living near a town center in an enormous number of American cities, one is given the impression that she or he is living in a war-torn area, given how often in-town neighborhoods are treated to the shriek of emergency vehicle sirens racing down the town center streets (where a “hub” for emergency services tends to be located). In cities lacking in elected leadership, this problem is particularly severe, as the elected officials don’t have the courage or the wisdom to control their emergency service providers. Gainesville, like so many American communities, has lacked leadership for decades, so it was no surprise to me that friends and family visiting Gainesville would often point out to me that the sirens in Gainesville were much more noticeable than in any other city they had visited or lived in.

I’ve heard of one city that informed its fire and police supervisors that they need to ease up on the sirens in the middle of the night between intersections, since there are so few cars on the road at those times, and the supervisors complied. I’ve not heard that this particular city has suffered from an epidemic of babies dying in burning buildings, regular traffic accidents, or widespread burglaries, as a result of that effective policy to control the exponential growth in out-of-control emergency vehicle sirens.

How many people in Gainesville, consciously or unconsciously, relocated out of a town center residence because they found the screaming discomfort of rampaging fire trucks to be intolerable?

  1. The Police Helicopter. When I lived in Gainesville, the city police department and county sheriff jointly purchased a law enforcement helicopter. Like the banner planes, it was loud and low-flying. Unlike the banner planes, it was often used late at night, and frequently used an invasive searchlight to scan areas. The helicopter would sometimes circle for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Fortunately, the helicopter problem has apparently subsided over time.

Like the emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters tend to be much more frequent in the town center skies than in outlying areas of a community. Escaping the Big Brother helicopter is, of course, commonly achieved by moving to the hinterlands.

Am I Being Thin-Skinned?

Could it be that I am just a hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned person when it comes to these five items? I don’t believe so. On a number of occasions during my time in Gainesville, I had people tell me that they noticed these problems to be significantly less noticeable in cities much, much larger. I also had a number of people over the years complain to me about the vacuum truck, the banner planes, the Malathion Truck, and the police helicopter.

Due to the enormous number and scale of benefits I enjoy by living centrally, I am committed to living in town center neighborhoods, so these problems have not chased me away from living in such locations. But I wonder how many of my neighbors have left because of these growing nuisances…

Are these problems inherent for those that live in town center neighborhoods — problems that people should expect as part of the ambient conditions of living in such a central location? Again, I don’t believe so. I believe that it is possible for a healthy downtown to function without such an excessive amount of vacuum trucks, relentless sirens, banner planes, helicopters, and Malathion trucks. It has been successfully done in nearly all healthy cities over the course of human history. We got by without such things in the past, and did quite nicely. Why is it not possible now?

Until some of these problems are resolved, cities such as Gainesville will continue to see people fleeing in-town residences for the perceived peace and quiet of sprawlsville. If we are truly committed to sustainability, infill, and compact development, I believe we should do what we have an obligation to find the leadership to reduce the nuisances I’ve summarized above.

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