Background

The LVFC has served our community for over 100 years. Long-time residents can recall when neighborhood volunteers sped their cars down community streets at the sound of sirens originating from the LVFC and Country Club Park to hop on fire trucks responding to emergency calls. However, changes to
the staffing of the station and technological advances have rendered the house siren obsolete while its volume continues to have significant negative impact on the health and welfare of nearby residents.

Efforts to curb the siren beginning in the 1980s were uniformly rebuffed by the fire department. Beginning over two and a half years ago, residents near the station approached the LCA and the LVFC about ending the use of the siren. Since that time, the neighborhood group has grown to 17 members including the former Director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Study Clinic, an audiologist, an emergency room medical doctor, a biologist, a sleep consultant, a former volunteer EMT, and other professionals. Members of the group live next door and close by the station. Members of the group have taken the following steps
to investigate the house siren:

  1. Measured the sound levels using decibel meters,
  2. Charted the residential density of the nearby area compared to areas surrounding other volunteer stations,
  3. Tracked the types and times of responses to the station’s calls,
  4. Observed for any volunteers arriving after the siren,
  5. Talked to current and former volunteers of the LVFC, members of other volunteer stations, and representatives of professional fire associations,
  6. Researched the health impact of the noise level and the use of fire sirens.

Health Impact

  • Decibel readings of the siren taken in the spring of 2019 ranged from the low 80s about 1000 feet from the siren to 90-100 decibels nearer the siren. Since then many of the soundings have been of lower duration and volume; however, many soundings continue to be at the former levels. The latest research indicates that the magnitude and frequency of the sound emitted by the siren is extremely disruptive to sleep and poses significant risks to the physical and mental health of nearby residents.
  • Excess noise is bad for hearing.  For example, attendance at a rock concert can result in exposure to 100 decibels, and possible ringing in ears – evidence of likely permanent hearing damage. 
  • Exposure to relevant noise levels for prolonged periods of time leads to increased risks for cardiovascular disease. Noise is stress, especially if there is little or no control over it. Our body excretes stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes in the composition of our blood and in the structure of our blood vessels, which have been shown to stiffen after a single extended period of noise exposure. Epidemiological studies show associations between noise exposure and an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke.
  • Noise results in sleep disturbance.   Sleep is a very active mechanism that recuperates and prepares us for the next wake period. A quiet bedroom is a cornerstone of good sleep hygiene. Our auditory system has a watchman function, constantly monitoring our environment for threats, even while we are sleeping. Noise in the bedroom can cause a delay in the time it takes us to fall asleep, can wake us up, and can prevent our blood pressure from going down during the sleep. 

Our neighborhood near the station includes many seniors, families with small children, residents with medical issues, and neighbors who prize the peace and calm of their community. During the pandemic, more people work from home and have varying work schedules, which is expected to continue into the
future. For example, a nearby resident teaches children with special needs and reports that the siren has a very negative impact on their attention and learning. Neighbors relate that their children have difficulty sleeping and become very upset by the loud soundings. Other nearby residents, including medical personnel, often work night shifts and need to sleep during the day. In addition, the siren has a significant impact on the property values of and ability to market nearby homes.

The LVFC

Baltimore County has 25 career fire stations and 28 volunteer ones. Career stations, including Towson and Texas, do not have station sirens. Ten of the volunteer stations have terminated the use of station sirens (for example, Cockeysville, White Marsh, Providence, Owings Mills, and Rosedale do not
use sirens). The Baltimore County Fire Chief has described that in her previous role as Howard County Fire Chief she ended the use of station sirens for volunteer stations because of health concerns for the neighbors and the volunteers. According to fire professionals we contacted, the trend is for discontinued use of sirens since the advent of improved technology to summon volunteers.

According to the LVFC, the station’s annual volume of responses and the corresponding use of the siren have grown from about 1500 calls 25 years ago to over 2300 today (over six calls a day). Of the 28 volunteer fire stations, LVFC is one of the busiest stations in the County and it is located in one of the most
densely residential communities.

When a call comes into the station, volunteers who are in-house immediately prepare to respond and messages are sent out to other members via cell phone and pager. This provides redundancy. Approximately two minutes later, as the members are about to enter the fire vehicle, the station siren goes off.
Upon observation, volunteers are not seen responding to the siren to participate in calls. Today, only a few of the 80 or so LVFC members live and/or work within hearing distance of the house siren and even if they do, they probably could not react to the siren, arrive, and gear up within the brief timeframe before the trucks leave. The time between the siren and the departures from the station is typically between one minute and 40 seconds to three minutes.

  • During May of 2020, community members tracked the responses of the Company to 53 random soundings of the station siren. In 31 of the cases, no fire truck siren was heard afterward.
  • The Department’s 2015 expansion included a dozen bunk rooms and other facilities to allow members to be present overnight. Neighbors were told that this development would circumvent the need for the siren. We understand that college students and others often sleep on-site and that these individuals handle a high percentage of fire truck calls.
  • During the construction of the new wing of the facility, the siren was discontinued for approximately one year. Residents asked for documentation of the impact of the suspension on response times, but the leadership said this was unavailable.

Community Action

In the spring of 2018, the President of the LCA and a neighbor met with an LVFC official about the siren. The LVFC official said the siren was used for tradition (it’s been used since 1928) and redundancy, because the county’s computer CAD/pager system is down 10% or more of the time. (We later learned this estimate was much too high.) Volunteers have pagers and cell phones, but when the computer system is down, pagers may, or may not, work. Thus, we were told, the siren is needed as a back up.

After further research, the LCA submitted a proposal to the LVFC, that the station only use the siren when the County computer system was actually down. However, in June of 2018, the LVFC rejected that proposal. At this meeting, the LCA was advised that the LVFC would try to forgo the siren when adequate volunteers for a call are already at the station. However, this arrangement has not been implemented.

The LVFC related that, except for a couple of people, everyone in the community favors the house siren. It reassures them that they are well protected. The neighborhood group circulated a petition in early 2019 to residents on streets close to the firehouse. Petitions signed by 80 residents in support of
discontinuance of the house siren were submitted to County officials a year ago.

In October of 2019, a meeting was convened with leadership of the LVFC and the County Fire Department, representatives of the County Executive’s Office, State representatives and members of our group. It was decided that a test would be conducted to evaluate the usefulness of siren. The siren would be turned off for three months during the hours of 10 pm to 7 am and the County would measure the difference between the response times of the company with and without the siren.

The test was conducted during the months of January through March of 2020. The County Fire Chief reported in a September Zoom meeting with our group, our State representatives, and representatives of the County that the response time was defined as the time from when the station was alerted to a call to when the volunteers left the station. The Chief related that there was no difference in response times with or without the siren and the interpretation is that the siren did not serve the purpose of summoning volunteers. The Chief and her staff and representatives of the County had a separate meeting with leadership of the fire station who, despite the results of the test, continued to want to maintain the use of the siren.

Our group has had subsequent communications with staff of the County Office of Constituent Services and our State representatives. At their suggestion, we and the LCA have reached out to the LVFC and proposed forming a group to collaborate on issues of mutual concern, offered the LCA newsletter and resources to help in recruiting and fundraising, and extended volunteer assistance. Our State representatives advise us that, with the support of the LCA, they will urge the Fire Chief to take steps to terminate the siren.

In closing, we continue to express appreciation to the dedicated volunteers of the LVFC for their marvelous service to our community. The neighborhood has lived with the siren for generations and many recall when it actually summoned volunteers to handle emergencies. If there was a legitimate explanation for its use we could understand how its necessity could outweigh the adverse impact on nearby residents. However, absent a legitimate explanation for the continued sounding of the siren, we urge the LCA to pass a resolution favoring the termination of its use.

Links

Sounding the alarm: How noise hurts the heart
Source: Knowledge Magazine
View article

Noise Pollution: How It Affects Your Body
Source: Life and Health
View article

Environmental noise and sleep disturbances: A threat to health?
Source: Sleep Science 7
View PDF

Ted Talk: Why noise is bad for you and what you can do about it.
View article