Sirens in the night.

Here’s an important piece of research conducted by one of the residents living in City Gate regarding night-time use of sirens.  Let us know what you think:

February 25, 13

To the Attention of: The False Creek Residents Association

Re: Impact of Sirens on Safety and Community Livability

Below is information I think essential to our efforts to reduce the impact sirens are having on the livability of our community. As can be seen from the research, rather than increase the health and safety of citizens, the use of sirens appears to increase the risk to health and safety. There is evidence in the research literature that the use of sirens by emergency service providers actually causes more deaths than it prevents. This is a serious matter.

Additionally, the unintended effect of siren use, especially at night, is having a negative impact upon the health and livability of our communities. It is important that this matter receive some investigation and oversight to determine whether the use of sirens is actually creating the kind of outcomes intended.

I want to acknowledge that a significant reduction has occurred in the use of sirens by emergency responders at night since Fall 2012. For this I am grateful. Prior to September 2012 I was documenting approximately 100 – 130 sleep interruptions per month from the extensive use of sirens in my neighbourhood. Currently the number of sleep interruptions from sirens is approximately 50 – 60 times per month. This number is still excessive and unnecessary.

During the past four years I have conducted my own research to better understand the challenges inherent in the extensive use of audible sirens by emergency responders and to identify possible solutions. What is apparent from my research is the following:

  1. Increasing Concern – The unintended impact of the use of emergency vehicle sirens is of increasing concern in urban areas across North America. The City of New York has identified ‘noise pollution’ as their number one concern. The Fire Departments with the City of San Francisco as well as Anchorage, Alaska have conducted extensive research in an effort to minimize the negative effects of sirens on their community.
  2. Emergency Vehicle Wake Effect – There is growing recognition that the use of sirens causes what is being described in the research literature as “emergency vehicle wake-effect collisions”. These are vehicle collisions occurring around the emergency vehicle using a siren. Research on the use of sirens has identified five times as many collisions are caused by emergency vehicle sirens vs. the number of collisions actually involving emergency vehicles. (The Wake Effect: Emergency Vehicle-Related Collisions. Pre-hospital and Disaster Medicine; Vol. 12, No. 4; October-December 1997)
  3. Sirens Increase Motor Vehicle Accidents – Research by the Province of Saskatchewan confirmed that the use of sirens actually increases the incidence of motor vehicle accidents with resultant injuries and deaths. Saskatchewan Health concluded: “The small amount of time saved by the use of lights and sirens may be offset by the increased risk of injury and death due to motor vehicle accidents.” (Saskatchewan Health EMS Protocols 1998)
  4. Sirens Do Not Alter Medical Outcomes – There is an increasing amount of research confirming that the use of sirens do not significantly reduce travel times to alter medical outcomes in all but rare circumstances. In some situations the use of sirens has been shown to even increase the length of travel time of emergency responders. In general, the time saving achieved by the use of a siren in an urban setting is documented to be less than 60 seconds. Thus it appears our use of sirens has more to do with traditionally accepted practices than demonstrated need or effectiveness. (Do Warning Lights and Sirens Reduce Ambulance Response Times? Prehospital Emergency Care, Volume 4, Issue 1, January 2000)
  5. Sirens Increase Risk to EMS Workers – The use of sirens has also been demonstrated to actually increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents involving EMS vehicles with a resulting risk of injury or death to both emergency service providers and citizens. Bledsoe (2003) noted that the occupational fatality rate for EMS workers was estimated to be twice that of the general population, that most fatalities were due to ambulance crashes, and that many of these collisions were attributed to the use of lights and sirens.
  6. Fear of Liability – The ability to consider alternatives to the current emergency vehicle driving regulations appears constrained by a driver’s (and government’s) fear of liability should the driver not employ full emergency lights and sirens at all times. However, the effectiveness of sirens in both health benefit and preventing accidents appears to be more perceived than real.
  7. Sirens Impact Health – Medical studies recognize the unintended health impact of sirens on citizens. Sleep research confirms that chronically interrupted sleep is as significant an impairment to judgment as is alcohol. As a consequence an increasing number of citizens are experiencing chronically impaired judgment and ill health due to the regular sleep disturbance caused by the use of sirens at night.
  8. Urban Development Along Transit Corridors – In our efforts to build communities of higher density and to position these communities along transit routes to lessen our dependence upon the automobile, increasingly more individuals will have their health negatively impacted by the extensive use of sirens. The significant construction of high density complexes – Olympic Village, Opsal, Central, Pinnacle, Maynard, Lido, Mechanica, Concord Pacific and others adjacent to ambulance corridors (Quebec Street and Second Ave.) means we can reasonably expect this negative impact will become even more severe in the future unless solutions are found.
  9. Reducing Urban Sprawl – The extensive use of sirens is one of the most commonly reported reasons given by people for moving out of high-density dwellings and returning to suburban neighborhoods. If we are serious about reducing suburban sprawl and increasing urban density, this matter needs to be addressed.
  10. Associations to the Sound of Sirens – In a talk given by Mr. Don McPherson, Superintendent, BC Ambulance Services, to a gathering hosted by Mr. Sam Sullivan on issues affecting urban density, Mr. McPherson invited the audience to think of the sound of sirens as “the sound of life”. While I appreciate that in some situations this may be the association, I also want to bring awareness to the fact that for a significant number of citizens the sound of a siren is associated with the injury, death, or disabling of a loved one. Unfortunately the sound of a siren has the potential to regularly remind a person of a significant health crisis or death and trigger a trauma response. As a health professional I regularly work with patients who are triggered in just this way.
  11. Alternatives Are Available – Alternatives to the extensive use of sirens are readily available. The Vancouver Police routinely operate with substantially less persistent use of sirens during emergencies than do either the Vancouver Fire or BC Ambulance Service. Ambulance drivers in Montreal, Quebec also employ substantially less use of sirens than do our provincial counterparts even though Montreal is as congested or more congested than Vancouver. We can also benefit from the research completed by EMS providers in San Francisco, Anchorage, Alaska, and elsewhere.
  12. Documenting Impact – It would appear the first step in this process is to formally evaluate the magnitude of the problem, both in terms of noise impact and emergency vehicle related accidents. Locating sound recording devices through out the city to document both decibel levels and frequency of exposure would help to inform decision makers of the level of exposure citizens are experiencing. I assume ICBC can provide the relevant data pertaining to emergency vehicle related accidents and fatalities. It is my belief that if the magnitude of this problem were fully acknowledged that more would be done more urgently to rectify this situation.

Recommendations for Siren Use:

Given the above information it would seem prudent to restrict siren use to only when an ambulance or fire vehicle is:

  • Traveling in excess of the posted speed limit
  • Traveling through a stop signal
  • Impeded by vehicle traffic such that a siren will help disburse traffic
  • The circumstance is such that the potentially reduced travel time will alter the medical outcome

I would suggest in an urban setting, especially at night, the number of occasions when these conditions are met are infrequent, thus negating the chronic use of sirens by emergency responders. This would be in sharp contrast to the current practise that has emergency responders turning on their sirens upon leaving their station and maintaining the use of sirens through out their travel regardless of whether they are experiencing the above conditions. This is both unnecessary and detrimental to the health and livability of the community.

I understand emergency service providers in British Columbia already have the discretion to turn off their sirens at night. It is my understanding that Section 122 (3) of the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act was repealed sometime in 2009 or 2010. This is the section of the Act that requires the sounding of an audible alarm by emergency response agencies. I also understand that on January 18, 2010 the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services issued a Departmental Directive stating –

“Recently all emergency response agencies received an amendment to the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act permitting discretionary use of Emergency Vehicle sirens while responding to emergency events”.


The directive further stated: “The amendment gives vehicles such as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks discretion to turn off their sirens late at night in high-density residential areas while responding to emergency events.”  

On January 26, 2011 and again on July 25, 2011 I wrote Ms. Wanamaker, the Deputy Solicitor General, to ask for confirmation on the above change to the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act. To date I have not received a response from the Deputy Solicitor General. I am having difficulty getting the government to confirm this change in the Act has in fact taken place, and if so, identify what is preventing emergency service providers from exercising the discretion available through this change.

It is my hope there is a willingness to recognize that the use of sirens by emergency responders is of increasing significance to the livability of our communities. It is also my hope that the commitment and the courage exist to find solutions that will serve as a model for other urban communities in the world.

Thank you for your consideration.


Ted Kuntz

Noise, Sirens, and Health

Presented by SFDPH to the

Lower Polk Street Neighbors,

October 7, 2008


Health Impacts of Noise – USEPA and WHO

  • Hearing Loss
  • Decreased communication and reduced academic performance
  • Annoyance and Stress
  • Colitis and Ulcers
  • Hypertension
  • Contribution to heart disease
  • Increase in mental illness

Possible Improvements

  • Reduce code level of 911 calls by improving quality of information provided.
  • Understand emergency vehicle routing and discuss options with community input.
  • Provide emergency response vehicles with signalization control to prevent intersection backup.
  • Continue training vehicle drivers in effective siren usage.
  • Include SFFD in Noise Task Force.

Noise Complaints are the “No.1 quality-of-life issue for New York residents” Michael Bloomberg, Mayor


8 thoughts on “Sirens in the night.

  1. Pamela Silliker-Smith

    Interesting research which I give full support to. I moved to Drake and Pacific in 2013 into a 55+ building after retiring and the volume of these sirens is beyond necessary. As for sleep deprivation – being startled out of sleep in the middle of the night on numerous occasions in the month is not healthy for anyone. I question how much greater that toll is on the elderly.

  2. Herb Barbolet


    This came up at the top of the list when I Googled “North American cities restricting siren use”.

    Has there been any interest in reviving this initiative?


  3. Robert Nevison

    Sirens in Vancouver are excessive period. AND the siren window piercing sound resembles an BOMB AIR RAID in character. How can Vancouver have so many “emergencies” all hours of the night and day.
    Full on Siren on a Ambulance crossing the Burrard bridge at 4am with NO cars anywhere.
    i could continue…
    in all the world capitals ive lived in- i have never heard this excess siren activity anywhere like what happens here daily.
    serious action (legal) should be taken with AIR RAID sirens replaced with and a strict protocol and training enforced
    just now i can hear a siren going on and on for 3 minutes as if parked stationary on light traffic roads.

  4. John Kocela

    I have noted in the last 6 to 8 months a notable uptick in sirens that I hear – particularly in the late hours and early mornings. Can we say for sure the frequency of emergency responders is on the incline .. decline… no difference??? Not an easy subject to research.

    I have lived downtown Vancouver for over 25 years and I can’t recall a time where it was this noticeable. In any event… I agree that it’s a problem…. and I’d sure like to know if the problem is getting worse or better…

    1. Robert Martinez

      I have recently moved to Vanvouver and have just experienced yet another night with my sleep shattered by four wailing siren events. I have lived in many cities around the world and never experienced anything remotely like this before, except during a terrorist attack. How can you people stand this? Why does the “world’s best city” have so many more emergencies? And are these ambulance, police or fire vehicles? Surreal.

  5. Greg

    The City Gate strata and residents are insufferable. They’ve even complained about the noise made by the skytrain; infrastructure that existed before City Gate was built.

    1. billcurrie

      The issue with Skytrain is the dramatic increase in noise recently as the cars and tracks between Main Street & Stadium station deteriorate. At one point, decibel levels reached 90db…almost double the safety limits. It’s an issue that harms Skytrain users as well. Translink has reached out, and together we’re working on a solution that will benefit residents and Skytrain riders.


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