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New sirens shake ground to get drivers to pull over

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Forced to share the road with newer vehicles that are engineered to cancel out road noise, and with drivers distracted by cell phones, iPods and basspumping stereo systems, Little Rock police and firefighters are using a new kind of emergency siren that motorists can feel.

The siren, which the two departments demonstrated Wednesday, emits a lower, denser tone that’s reminiscent of 1980s hip-hop, as opposed to the shrieking whine that usually emits from racing fire and police vehicles.

The idea behind the new siren is that vibrations from its lower tones project along the ground and into the structures of vehicles, getting the drivers’ attention to help clear the road for city vehicles barreling toward emergencies. Little Rock has spent $600,000 so far installing the device, called the Howler, on four Fire Department battalion-chief vehicles and on 34 police cars, with plans to install hundreds more.

The Fire Department has tested the Howler on the road for the past three months.

“The feedback so far has been very positive,” Fire Chief Greg Summers said during Wednesday’s demonstration. “Our battalion chiefs have told me that people on a cell phone, for example, who usually ignore our sirens and don’t move over, they hear this. They don’t necessarily recognize the sound, but they know something is different so they look around and see us coming.” During Wednesday’s demonstration at the city’s fleet maintenance and storage facility in southwest Little Rock, Summers acknowledged that he didn’t feel anything while standing outside as the Howlers blared.

“You feel it when you’re inside a vehicle,” he said. “I can tell you firsthand, you can feel it. I don’t know how they do that.” Fire Department Capt. Jason Weaver said the chiefs of battalions 1, 2, 9 and 11 had been using the Howler.

He said he’s ridden with those officers during emergency runs and “it’s a noticeable difference. People move.” Engineered and designed in Connecticut by the Whelen Engineering Co., each Howler costs about $400. That $400 includes the devices themselves, as well as labor costs, mounting brackets customized to each type of vehicle and a few other modifications, said Brock Vest, Little Rock’s fleet acquisitions coordinator. The money comes not from the police or fire budgets but from the city’s fleet budget.

The Howler consists of what is essentially a speaker and subwoofer, Whelen regional sales manager Derek Wright said. The sound it makes is subordinate to an emergency vehicle’s main siren, meaning it won’t work unless the primary siren is already on.

Police Department spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said officers and supervisors won’t have to learn a new procedure for when to activate the Howler.

“It’ll be their decision, just like activating the siren is now,” he said. “This fits under our existing policy, so there’s nothing new anybody has to do.” The Police Department divides the city into 23 patrol districts and tries to staff each for three shifts a day with at least one officer. Most officers, who almost always drive solo, share patrol cars with other shifts or among other officers on their own shifts. Hastings said the 34 cars with new sirens will be put into the existing rotation the department uses to introduce new cars into its fleet.

Officers and some patrol supervisors will get most of the Howler-affixed patrol cars.

The entire Police Department fleet consists of 330 vehicles, 180 of which are designated for patrol. Vest said it could take three years to get Howlers installed on all Little Rock police cars.

City officials from various departments said they are not overly concerned about emergency vehicles colliding with civilian ones. There has been no spike in such crashes to alarm them.

They do hope that the devices help decrease response times.

“The old saying is if you can’t get there, you’re of no help,” Hastings said. “If you crash on the way to someplace or you’re delayed because people don’t get out of your way, that doesn’t help anybody.” Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services, which runs ambulance and rescue services for Pulaski County agencies and hospitals, is considering buying the new sirens for its fleet of 42 vehicles.

“It’s something we’re still looking at, still considering,” Executive Director Jon Swanson said. “We have not made a decision either way.” He said MEMS has to weigh the expense against other needs while trying to determine whether the new sirens would mean a significant improvement in response times.

“It may be marginal improvement,” he said. “And maybe that’s not good enough. We have an excellent opportunity right now to see how well it works for other agencies before we make up our minds.”

Copyright 2009 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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