Strange noises drag all New Yorkers from peaceful slumber at some point: The cracking thud of what really sounds like a bowling ball dropped on your upstairs neighbors' tile floor at 3 a.m.; feline scrapes; grumbling garbage trucks mauling long rows of parked cars; drunk people yelling outside your window; the shrill drone of a siren, seemingly timed for the exact moment you begin to drift off.
You take all the precautions, plugging your ears with foam and burying your head under all the pillows, and you foolishly think you've beaten the caterwaul when here comes the ambulance, screeching around the corner only to find its way blocked back the aforementioned trash hauler. The two commence a howling argument, and you know you will never sleep again.
Some have suggested that we don't have to live this way. On Wednesday, City Council members Carlina Rivera (representing Gramercy, Flatiron, and the East Village) and Helen Rosenthal (representing the Upper West Side) introduced a bill proposing that New York City squad cars, fire trucks, and ambulances switch over to a two-tone siren—the "'more melodic' European-style" Hi-lo siren, as Joseph Davis, senior director of Mount Sinai's emergency medical services, put it to the Wall Street Journal. Rivera and Rosenthal's bill provides for a two-year transition period, and would also cap the acceptable maximum siren sound level.
All of that sounds pretty okay, but would a more subtle siren do enough? Shouldn't a siren do the most? Sirens, according to the Journal, are annoying by design, made to aggravate the same part of the ear as a baby's wail so that you pay attention. They also have to slice through the city's vehicular racket, the ceaseless pointless HONKING and the yelling and the regular car sounds. They must scream louder than everything else screams in order to make themselves heard, but the choking noise pollution also takes its toll, creating stress, disrupting sleep—and relatedly, productivity and focus—and simply making us want to crawl out of our skin, in addition to more concrete effects like cardiovascular disease and hearing loss.
And then we find ourselves trapped in a vicious siren cycle, where the natural earmuff of damaged aural systems means we need to crank up the volume. According to the Journal, that's already the case for ambulance drivers operating inside sound-proofed cars and/or ear buds to drown out the squall, so a logical solution would seem to be the wholesale replacement of our current sounds with something more symphonic.
In fact, some NYC ambulances have already adopted this continental drawl. But according to the Journal, some people "really like" the so-called Rumbler siren, which can be felt as a vibration. Then again, some people really "hate it." Here's a little audio sample of what I will call siren classic, for your consideration:
Siren classic has obvious benefits: you need this cacophonous kick in the pants to alert you to looming dangers; to Morse code WATCH OUT straight against your eardrum, so that you don't wind up under the wheel of an emergency response vehicle.
The so-called "yelp" siren, heard here, also accomplishes that task pretty handily:
Just to really experience all that a siren can do, because we're here listening to siren sounds and why the hell not, check out this Lenox Hill ambulance siren. It's very obnoxious, very obtrusive, and characterized by a sort of lasered honking that really grinds your earbones to dust:
Hear also: this frenetically blippy one, which sounds either like the video game version of itself or a bad DJ, you decide (but make sure you start at 0:09)!
All compelling audio attacks, to be sure, but it's eminently possible that you would internalize the message without the wall of obliterating noise; that the gentle drone of a more melodic siren might nudge you out of harm's way just as effectively, but without so much annoyance.
So: what do you think of this fancy boy siren, it's European!
If you heard that barreling down the street, would you understand the MOVE IT command, or would you get hit? I myself am partial to the two-tone, but I'll leave you to form your own opinions.