Friday, June 21, 2013

Community meetings about loud fire truck sirens (no, really)

Are you annoyed when fire truck sirens make noise when they're on their way to put out fires and save people's lives? If so, here are some meetings for you.

I'm being somewhat sarcastic here, but some neighbors have organized a couple of community meetings to complain about the noise generated by emergency vehicles from the 14th and Monroe street firehouse. See the flyer above. They invited DC fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe and people from Councilmember Graham and Mendelson to come, plus ANC commish Pat Flynn.

Now I do agree that fire trucks are noisy -- but that's the whole idea. People are supposed to hear them so they get out of the way and the trucks are able to go as quickly as possible to put out the fire or administer medical care.

I also admit that I don't live next to a firehouse and I'm sure it can get tiresome to hear sirens all the time. But at the same time, if you live next to a firehouse, you should expect some fire truck sounds, just as if you live next to a hospital you'll hear ambulances, or if you live next to an airport you will probably hear some planes flying. That's living in a city. And it's not like this fire station just opened a week ago and it would be a surprise to residents -- it opened in 1895! That's 118 years that people should have known that a fire station is nearby.

I'm sure it's annoying, but to me there are much bigger issues out there than fire trucks that are supposed to be loud being loud. What's next, people being mad that ambulances drive fast? That coffee is hot? (Ok, I guess that is already an issue.)

Feel free to disagree in the comments or let me know what you think if you live in that area. Personally, I always thought that Zeba Bar, across from the fire station, should have a special drink deal when the fire truck siren goes off, $1 beers or something. That would be pretty fun.

UPDATE:  Maryam, the organizer, just wrote me in response to an email. Here's what she had to say.
People do argue that [if you're living near a fire house, you'll hear sirens] and they also have many other good arguments for why everyone should just tolerate the noise.   We all understand that we live near a firehouse and of course we want our tax dollars to be put to good use, so some level of noise is inevitable.  However, the noise has recently gone from present to omnipresent and oppressive.  
At this point, the narrow issue we want to eliminate is the excessive use of Monroe Street as a main east-west thoroughfare for the emergency vehicles and the related increase in sirens and noise.  After quite a bit of investigation, we believe - although at our community meetings we may find out otherwise - that there are two relatively simple fixes.  
First, the new medians on 14th Street just north of Park Road must be removed because they 1) create more traffic that 2) forces some of the emergency vehicles to use Monroe Street because they cannot get down the other east-west streets quickly enough.  Second, there are several new spots on our narrow street that were added in January that make it difficult for emergency vehicles to get through the narrow street, which is not ideal for them or for us because it causes them to lay on their horns and turn sirens on sooner and longer to try to get people out of the way. 
By the way, since we started this small effort to get everyone in our neighborhood together to speak with our elected officials and relevant agency officials, I have received emails from people all over the city who also are harmed by and tired of the excessive noise.  If you have visited other cities or even other more affluent parts of our own city, you surely have noticed that the type and level of noise is significantly less.  In the balance of citizens' right to be free from noise pollution with the community's need for safety, the citizens' voices are not being heard.  We seek to strike a better balance between emergency services and citizens. 
I am by no means an expert, but I do know that we barely get a full night's sleep and that our son is scared of the sirens, wakes up from naps and in the middle of the night crying from the excessive sirens, and these noises also interfere with enjoyment of our beautiful neighborhood and the beautiful park on 11th and Monroe.  We have the right to enjoy our property and our neighborhood, and we will not tolerate this noise any longer.


  1. This is unbelievably asinine. If she wants a solution to her problem, I found it right here:

    "...causes them to lay on their horns and turn sirens on sooner and longer to try to get people out of the way." The emergency vehicles aren't her problem, the idiot entitled drivers who won't pull over for emergency vehicles are.


  3. It's not a solution to reroute the trucks away from your home. Nor is it in the community's interest to remove traffic calming measures like medians for the exclusive purpose, based on imagination, of shuttling the engines down a different street. Um, you moved into a house near a fire station.

  4. "I have received emails from people all over the city who also are harmed by and tired of the excessive noise."

    ...and they are known in many circles as people who should live in the country.

  5. I'm with you, except you've bought the McDonald's propaganda about the Stella Liebeck case. Please do some research before you further injure the woman.

  6. No, this issue is 100% legitimate. For starters, the horns on dc fire trucks are actually painful to hear from close at hand. Park, Monroe, and the other east-west streets in that area are narrow enough to put pedestrians in very close proximity to fire trucks. The horns are just flat out too loud for that environment.

    Second, the residents of Monroe got an extremely raw deal from the traffic pattern changes in central Columbia heights. In particular, traffic at holmead and Monroe is much heavier than before, and theres frequently a bunch of cars backed up by the light at 13th and monroe -- meaning that even if fire truck traffic is the same, horn use is way up. These are formerly quiet side streets that are not set up for heavy traffic, and it's legitimately unfair that the the traffic patern now essentially leaves Monroe as the only route away from the fire house.

    It isn't enough to just roll your eyes and blame the petitioner. The city can do better.

  7. While its only a tangential point, I agree with ryanov.

    We live on 13th and Monroe and are not bothered by the noise. I'm not sure whether or not the situation could be improved. Its possible I guess, but seems like a wider range of "solutions" should be discussed with a wider variety of interested parties. Right now the letter appears to be entertaining a fair amount of conjecture.

  8. I live right next door to the fire house on the corner of 14th and Newton. The occasional sirens don't bother me in the least. I knew what I was getting into when I moved here. I'm just glad that emergency responders are saving lives.

  9. I totally agree--the noise is out of control. There has been an uptick in noise from sirens and emergency related vehicles over the past few months. Those sirens are too loud for a neighborhood that now has a lot families with young children, and Monroe Street is the preferred route for all kinds of emergency and non-emergency calls. I'm currently traveling in a war zone, and I can say that the level of noise from emergency vehicles here is not too different from the noise on Monroe Street. Something should definitely be done!

  10. Some thoughts:

    The national standard for fire engine siren noise is 120dB. That's set to provide a driver with his windows rolled up (a premium car), listening to the radio (90-95dB) 3.4 seconds to notice and react to the siren and move his vehicle out of the way (say an intersection).

    What this says is that siren level has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the convenience of drivers in expensive cars.

    Furthermore, I'll stipulate that the sound of the firetruck is not the limiting factor to reaction time in the city. It's visual confirmation of the lights in the rear view mirror (most times you can hear the trucks, but can't tell where they're coming from until they're on you) and proper training on what to do with your vehicle (many people in DC still do not filter to the right even with a firetruck immediately behind them).

    Ignore the ignorance of the uninformed.

    Jim Bo.

  11. I guess it would be ok to blast the siren, air horn, electric siren etc,. if it was your house on or near 13th & Monroe NW which was on fire or family member in cardiac arrest...or should the fire engine, ambulance etc., just run silent to YOUR emergency...If I were a betting man...I'd say you'd want them to get there as fast and safely as possible..wouldn't you agree...

    Here's another idea since its so so bothersome...invest in some foam earplugs...they can reduce the decibels from the noise dramatically...

    Let's say the fire engine you want to hush hush going down the street hits a car or even yet, a child, because they did not hear the fire engines emergency siren or air horn because some small group has nothing to do except whine and cry about living in DC...maybe this group should petition the outrageous amount of speed humps across the city that slow fire trucks and ambulances down....think of this...instead of a fire truck rushing to your home, they have to come to an almost complete stop because some brightlight came up with the idea.....BTW...i live in the country and don''t hear a darn thing...but if I moved to DC, I wouldn't complain about noise...that's city with it and get over it...kisses HOOKMAN

  12. Anonymous

    If the city and the fire chief place an order out that orders all

  13. Here's an idea: Ban ALL automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic from the following areas: 14th St. between Columbia Rd., and Spring Rd.; 13th St. between Columbia Rd. and Spring Rd.; 11th St. between Harvard St. and Taylor St. All pedestrians and bicyclist must use the alleys to traverse the city. All automobiles must park before arriving within those boundaries. All garbage, deliveries, and anything else requiring a vehicle needs to be brought to the edge of those boundaries. Emergency apparatus won't need to use their sirens anymore, because they won't have to navigate around anything within this new boundary area. Everyone is quiet - and more importantly - happy. I'm still amazed at all of the people who move into this city for the convenience of living in a city - but then try to make everything that is 'city living' go away, because it is inconvenient. For everyone's information, the firehouse was constructed and opened in 1985. Monroe St., Park Rd., and 13th, 14th, & 16th Sts. have been their major routes of travel long before that...

    -Elvis Picasso

  14. I cant believe this lady out of all the issues in DC going on this actually makes the news. How about to relocate to a county or city where the fire department response is double or triple that of DC's and see how you like it. The trucks have the louds sirens, simply because people dont move out of the way with the current noise level of the siren.

  15. Baltimore fireman

    You barely get a full nights sleep? What do you think it's like for the firemen? Getting up for 15+ run nights is hard on the body. And you want them to use a different street? There's a reason they take the streets they do. Because its the quickest most efficient way to get to runs. You are completely oblivious as to what the for service is like. Do yourself a favor. Quit complaining and support your fire department. That firehouse was there long before any of the people living in that neighborhood. Get over your own selfish desires. You want the easiest way to get rid of noise? Stop calling 911 for non emergency, BS issues. I guarantee that'll cut down on noise. Why don't you start a group for that. Get real.

  16. A possible solution might be for D.C. to investigate "Rumble Sirens" that make the drivers with closed windows and loud radios FEEL the siren. They are very low frequency and much quieter. Honestly though I don't know if the neighbors would find the vibrations even more offensive

  17. After taking a look at a crime map using data from the last 60 days, there have been 164 crimes committed within 1500 feet of your firehouse. 34 "violent crimes", 81 cases of theft, 2 stolen cars etc. Loud sirens moving about the neighborhood is probably the best thing that can happen in a neighborhood like this. As a reference point, there were 20 crimes total using the same parameters near the Tenley station, 63 total crimes using the same parameters at the station at 1300 NJ Ave NW, and 37 using the same parameters at the station in Anacostia. What do you think would happen to your out of control crime numbers if the presence of emergency vehicles were dulled or muted?

  18. ok so...move out of the city to avoid city life was said...

    ummm knowing that a fire house existed in your neighborhood long before you moved in was said...

    oh yes! to the anon..person who posted @ June 24, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    stating the area NOW has alot of families....ummmm NOW? so what did they have then? all of those houses and apartments in that area werent just built for single people or couples without kids. that area has had families livin in it for a long time and not just NOW. maybe fire trucks should be equipped with that thing thats on the front of trains so instead of blasting sirens they can just drive without issue and whatever car is in the way would get tipped over or forcefully moved out of the way.

    excellent use of imagery by putting her family into the mix. im sure if her family died because there was little to no use of a fire siren which caused a delayed response to her loved ones.

    here's another point. not all the time is the fire truck nearby going to your location. so if there is an emergency that other fire truck has to get to your location. so the question is a very valid one......if people dont move out of the way at the current sound of a siren....what do you expect to happen if you.....lowered it?

  19. This assault by the DC emergency services is atrocious, stoop making ludicrous rationalizations for outright stupidity. Get educated, and help make your home a decent place to live. DC is a noisy hellhole over nothing!! DDOT was very stupid to make changes to the streets that obviously obstruct emergency vehicles. Where was the DCFDEMS to stop the dumb alterations. DDOT has made driving in DC a NIGHTMARE for everyone. You are supposed to drive, not stand idling, and stopping every two feet. We need to throw DDOT, and Ellerbee in the sewer and start over, with common sense, not anal retentive insanity.
    The ambulance sirens are causing heart disease,stress illnesses, harming children and babies so all these apologists can go screw themselves.The law requires ambulances to drive no faster than 25 miles per hour, so let's get these idiots to stop the unnecessary continuous sirens. the noise regulations say "only use sirens when clearly necessary". So let's get this dept of idiots to SHUT UP, use the siren ONLY when there is a real obstruction, use the horn, a volume control, drive competently( they trace the same streets all day. A bigger mountain was never made out of such a tiny mole hill. The entire EMS personnel are being deafened and have 100 times the heart disease rate. We have a constitutional right to quiet in our homes. That is ALL! Now get the equipment, and the protacols and GET A BRAIN. We have a right to a quiet city. Do not acceept the ridiculous crap this dept. chief puts out. Ellerbe is an arrogant jerk (like his sponsor unindicted as of today Gray)who started destroying the DCFDEMS from the day he was confirmed.
    There are Traffic light coordination devices, and the law, get these jerks to back off. The city is a horrible place to live in. because of this idiot in charge, FIRE THEM! GRAY should have resigned when his $650,000 pay off was disclosed (Shadow Campaign my ass), he is still funneling millions to his benefactor contractors.We must euthenize the city council, like any other rabid animal. DDOT did not have to pack in so much crap into this city, it's like a rabbit warren or a maze. . The DC govt. , especially Ellerbee is harmful to our health. My fiend said of DC, "he was never so glad to get away from someplace since VIETNAM!"

  20. "We have a constitutional right to quiet in our homes."

    lol. I honestly can't tell if that entire post was shtick or not.

  21. This go to show you how extreme some people will resort to in order to live the suburban life style (loudon county,va) vs the urban life style which is hearing sirens, loud music and other noises. I support the use of emergency horns/sirens by firetrucks since I see idiots who dont move over everyday for them in DC.

  22. Let me reiterate something that others have said. By choosing to live in a dense urban environment in close proximity to a firehouse, these residents have chosen two-fold to live in a noisy environment. Period. Full stop. If they want peace & quiet, there are plenty of suburban and even rural areas within a relatively short distance of DC.

    There are a lot of misconceptions. First, let me start off by saying I'm a firefighter (not DC). The sirens and horns are critical emergency signaling devices. In some jurisdictions, the laws require use of sirens at all times when emergency lights are activated for the protection of civilians. As an emergency vehicle driver, if I'm involved in any kind of collision and both my visual (lights) and audible (siren) signaling devices were not active at the time, *MY* neck will be on the chopping block for liability.

    In my jurisdiction, I still have discretion, but it is at my own risk. A couple of weeks ago, I was driving an ambulance. I was in a dense area in the evening, and decided to drive away from a large group of people after receiving a call before activating my siren. I turned on my lights, took my foot off my brake, and was about to hit the gas when a woman and a child walked out in front of my ambulance as if nothing were out of place. Never mind the delay, that could have been tragic. Next time? Siren is coming on right from the start. Residents don't like it? Move away from a firehouse. I'm not going to be responsible for hitting a child.

    If the residents in this neighborhood feel that there is an increase in emergency vehicle traffic, it would only be a result of an increase in call volume. Perhaps there are preventative measures they can take in their neighborhood to reduce call volume, such as awareness campaigns, distribution of smoke alarms, etc.

  23. Could anyone attending the meeting please conduct a survey by show of hands asking the following question:

    "If you were on the ground floor of your house, and your child were sleeping upstairs, if a fire broke out and your path to your child were blocked, would you object to the use of sirens and horns for responding emergency vehicles?"

    That's what we do. We respond to help people on the worst day of their lives. I'm not sorry that this may be seen as inconvenient some of their neighbors.

  24. Jesus lady ... sell your house!

    You are obviously not prepared or "medically" capable of living in a dense urban environment.

    You want the fire truck sirens off and you also want them to take the LONG way.

    I can't stop laughing.

  25. Some of these comments are rather amazing in the narrowness of their thinking while simultaneously accusing others of the same.

    Keep in mind that other juridictions (such as many cities in other countries) use different kinds of horns at different frequencies/patterns/sounds that are equally effective at getting attention but less disturbing. Horns can also be made directional and better focused (as well as moveable) so that the sound is aimed where it needs to be sent - and not where it doesn't need to be. These changes cost very little.

    There are lots of ways the Fire/ambulance/police noise can be more effective and simultanteously less objectionable. The either/or comments here are evidence of rather narrow thinking.

  26. The discomfort you experience as a firetruck deploys or rumbles by is minor compared to an injury or life being taken away from a head-phoned pedestrian crossing in front of a silent engine. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't mind the warning.

    I'm all for ending needless noise, but this battle won't be won for DCQuiet fans. The safety of the public (those in the streets and the ones in need of the truck) trumps your kids being woken up in the middle of the night.

  27. @Rick_Otis: You are correct that many jurisdictions in Europe use the two-tone horn instead of the siren.

    The audio alert is chosen based on how the public will respond. In the US, the public is taught to respond to sirens. If that were suddenly changed to a completely different sound, some drivers might react in an (even more) unpredictable manner than they do today. The purpose of the siren is to elicit a *trained* response from drivers. Having a consistent sound nationwide is a big part of that.

    Intersections are among the most dangerous places for emergency vehicles. It is hard enough for the sound from our current sirens to be heard around buildings in a city, meaning that cars approaching an intersection don't hear them that well. The use of a directional audio alert would exacerbate that, putting both emergency responders and the public in greater danger. Some departments also alter the tone pattern of the siren as they approach an intersection just to "wake drivers up".

    Once again, why do you state the sound is objectionable? If your house were on fire, would you find the sound of the siren objectionable? Would your neighbor find the sound objectionable if their loved one were suffering a medical emergency?

    Emergency vehicles do not use sirens because firefighters and EMTs enjoy the sound. They are used to ensure that they can get from their station to the location of the emergency in the quickest and safest way possible for both themselves and the public on the roads.

    Those who do not wish to hear sirens should not buy a home near a firehouse. It's just that simple.

  28. DC Firetrucks are way overused, like firetrucks in most cities. The government sends them on minor emergency calls--calls that are also being served by other first responders--in order to keep firehouse employment up in an era when smoking is falling, electrical fires are less frequent, and everything in our houses is impregnated with flame retardents.

  29. @anonymous: That article ignores a glaring fact. In order to ensure response times in an emergency, which not only save lives but ensure that a city's insurance rating for fire protection remains favorable (thus keeping your homeowner insurance rates low), there are guidelines for # of firefighters per capita and # of firehouses per sq. mile in a city. In the same time span that the article refers to, populations in major urban centers have grown, and the density of many major cities has increased as well. Therefore, departments have hired accordingly and built new firehouses. That being said, many departments in the past few years have made drastic layoff of both fire and police due to budget shortfalls, which have in many cases fallen way short of safe staffing levels.

    As for your comment about "everything in our houses is impregnated with flame retardents", this is patently false, and dangerously so. The advent of what is known as "lightweight construction" common in modern residential structures is horrifically unsafe in fires. By using glue instead of screws or even nails, and aluminium gusset plates instead of steel screws for roof trusses, modern homes are cheaper to build, but suffer massive structural failure much more quickly than they used to. Whereas a fire may have led to structural failure of a home in 15-20 minutes some 50 years ago, today's homes can fail in under 10 minutes. Homes today are full of all sorts of petroleum-based synthetics (plastics, foam, etc), causing fires to burn MUCH hotter than ever.

    Therefore, fires are far more dangerous to crews today than ever, and the window available to rescue someone is substantially smaller than ever.

    Yes, there are far fewer fires. But when there is a fire, it is much more dangerous than ever, and requires more staffing than in the past to fight safely.

  30. In case you'd like more information on the insurance ratings from ISO that I mentioned in my previous post, here is their web site:

    Here is the description of their rating system and its' purpose from their web site:

    "Through the Public Protection Classification (PPC™) program, ISO evaluates municipal fire-protection efforts in communities throughout the United States. A community's investment in fire mitigation is a proven and reliable predictor of future fire losses. So insurance companies use PPC information to help establish fair premiums for fire insurance — generally offering lower premiums in communities with better protection. Many communities use the PPC as a benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of their fire-protection services. The PPC program is also a tool that helps communities plan for, budget, and justify improvements."

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  32. The sirens could be half the volume with brighter strobes and red flashers with a similar attention-getting effect. The volume and frequency of sirens in urban zones has become INSANE. People who live in suburbs who don't have to deal with this magnitude of noise pollution need to stay out of the discussion.

  33. I'm really shocked how stupid some of you are. Look up the noise ordinance and health issues that arise from constant disrupted sleep. It's so absurd and unnecessary to blast sirens on empty streets in the middle of the night. As for people saying to "deal with it" because it disrupts the firemen's sleep ... Uh, hello? It's their job to work a shift. Nobody objects to daytime use of sirens. It's bullshit and poorly justified that they need to be blasted several times over the span of a few hours in the early morning.

    The fact that some of these posters, including this article's author, would object to people trying to find solutions to make their community better is apalling. To think the city has already come up with the best solutions gut all of these issues is laughable. Get your heads on straight and use your dam brains to empathize with people's arguments and complaints.

  34. We need to have another meeting. They think this is a joke. I have a baby and they blast sirens at 4am when nobody is on the road... ridiculous!

  35. Here's a solution:
    reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.


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