by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Councilperson Helen Rosenthal and several other members of the New York City Council have introduced legislation to alter the tones of the city’s ambulance and vehicle sirens so that they would be in line with those used in European countries. The European sirens, we have been told, are just as effective but not as shrill as the city sirens that are  offensive and disturbing to New York City residents. In response to residents living near Mount Sinai hospital who have complained about the hospital’s sirens for years, the hospital did play different sirens at a community meeting last year and, indeed, the European ‘high-low’ tone was judged the least offensive.

Yet, the intrusive sirens continue to be used in New York City. This despite the fact, as Julia Vitullo-Martin writes in her article “Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis, ”that these excessively loud sirens are both a health risk to emergency responders themselves as well as nearby residents exposed to these loud sounds.”

The traditional argument for dangerously loud sirens has been the need to move traffic so that emergency vehicles can get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Yet, with the pandemic slowing city traffic considerably, why must New Yorkers be subjected to these? With so many people now confined to their homes, more New Yorkers have become aware of these “much too loud” sirens. In addition to being a health hazard before the pandemic, these frequent sirens have engendered even greater anxiety in New Yorkers who view them as reminders of the illnesses and deaths brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vitullo-Martin uses the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic to question the city’s justification in retaining these offensive blaring sirens. Why with traffic down, are the sirens still sounding like jet takeoffs? With fewer vehicles on the road, do you really need the blaring sirens to tell the cars and trucks to move over? Supposedly, there are protocols to direct drivers when to use full sirens. Vitullo-Martin suggests the pandemic might get city planners to rethink traffic patterns in a way that would make it less difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destinations. And the City Council legislation on the high-low tone sirens may have a better chance of passing.

I know the coronovirus pandemic has been more than a horrific experience for New Yorkers but it is out of such experiences that new ideas to improve the health and well-being of citizens come forth. As Vitullo-Martin suggests, one such idea may lead to fewer health-hazardous emergency vehicle sirens.