Chicago residents: Ambulance sirens too loud
"There are some evenings where, and I'm not exaggerating, an ambulance can come by every six minutes," resident Vicki Loevy said
By William Lee
CHICAGO — Some Streeterville residents, along with elected leaders, say they think the number of ambulances traveling through the downtown neighborhood is rising, as is the siren volume — and they want the Fire Department to do something about it.
"There are some evenings where, and I'm not exaggerating, an ambulance can come by every six minutes," resident Vicki Loevy said at a Thursday night community meeting about emergency sirens in the neighborhood.
"The volume that's amplified from the street can be excruciatingly painful and literally I wear around my apartment construction earphones that they use for jackhammers. It's ridiculous," Loevy, 61, said during the meeting at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which drew about 75 people including residents, Chicago Fire Department officials as well as state Rep. Christian Mitchell and Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd.
The two-hour community meeting was hosted by the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, a community group that has worked for five years to reduce noise it says is disrupting the peace of the lakefront community.
Downtown residents acknowledge that the wail of sirens isn't new — especially in Streeterville, which is home not only to Northwestern Memorial Hospital but also Lurie Children's Hospital. It's likely the children's hospital, which opened five years ago, increased the number of ambulances in the neighborhood, residents and officials say.
One Fire Department official told the audience that the department's ambulance sirens aren't louder than they used to be and meet federal regulation. Still, the department is sensitive to concerns and has made at least 11 "common-sense" policy changes citywide over the years, such as reducing the frequency of activating sirens, aiming the sirens toward traffic in front of the emergency vehicle and lowering the sirens from the roofs to the vehicle grilles, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford told the audience.
But Hopkins, the alderman, thinks Chicago's sirens are among the loudest in the country.
"We're even louder than New York City," Hopkins said before the meeting, adding: "And the question you have to ask is why is that necessary? What do you get from a louder siren?"
At least one resident voiced that concern during the meeting, but Langford told the group that Fire Department emergency vehicle sirens are at the same volume as those in New York City's Fire Department.
Siren volumes on fire department ambulances and emergency vehicles are locked by the manufacturer — meaning that drivers can only turn them on and off — and meet federal regulations, Langford said. Lowering the volume, as some requested, is not a legal option, he told the group.
"We cannot modify that siren," said Langford, adding that he has researched the topic for several years. "If we modify that siren, we are open to liability. Now we're in violation of state law and federal law."
At 120 decibels, the sirens are just below the 123-decibel limit set by federal regulation, he said. The sirens are at levels that get the attention of motorists, along with pedestrians on their phones or listening to music, Langford added.
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The average citizen can handle short doses of a 120-decibel siren passing them, but prolonged exposure to it can lead to hearing loss, Dr. Dennis Moore, an assistant professor with Loyola Medicine's otolaryngology department, told the Tribune on Friday.
"In general having that noise, I don't think it's going to have that much effect on our hearing, but the noise is going to be a stressor," said Moore, whose department specializes in treating disorders and diseases of the ear, nose and throat. "I'm not qualified to say whether that's going to lead to anxiety or (secondary health problems). But as far as a fire engine going by, or a really explosive noise like that is definitely much more of a concern as far as hearing loss."
Moore did offer some advice to people on the street. "Typically it's probably prudent if people are out and about if there's sirens going by, I would literally stop what I'm doing and put my hands over my ears," he said. "It's like if something is too bright, you put sunglasses on. I always tell people we have eyelids, but we don't have ear lids. They can't close themselves up."
Hopkins, a 20-year Streeterville resident, said before the meeting that the sirens affect his home life too. "I have a 2-year-old baby who can't take a nap because of the sirens," he said.
"Downtown residents are the most noise-tolerant residents that you will ever find anywhere." he said. So "when they say it's too loud, you can take it to the bank — it's too damn loud," Hopkins added.
Streeterville is a special challenge, Langford said during the meeting, because of the high density of people living, visiting and shopping in an area that's home to two busy hospitals. While fire officials can make changes to lessen the impact on passers-by and pedestrians, they have less control over sounds that invade the area buildings, he said.
And his view of downtown differs from the alderman: "Downtown is not a neighborhood. It's active 24 hours a day, downtown Chicago doesn't sleep at night," he said.
Some relief from the sirens could come next year when the University of Chicago Medicine's trauma center opens on the South Side, diverting some of the patients who would go to Northwestern, according to Langford and Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner Richard Edgeworth.
Mitchell said he hopes to propose legislation during the January session in Springfield that would curb siren volume and motorcycle noise. He and several others also suggested that private ambulance companies be brought in on the discussions.