This is Why Firetrucks Have Different Sirens

When first responders and their equipment travel and respond to emergencies, two things become clear right off the bat. They are bright and they are loud. Lights and sirens distinguish first responder vehicles operating under emergency conditions and set them apart from other vehicles on the roadways. This is by design.

Why do firetrucks have different sirens? There are four primary reasons firetrucks have different sirens: tradition, regulations, safety, and cost. There are many options for sirens today and many considerations and factors which decision-makers take into account when deciding just what siren works best on their firetruck.

Advancements in technology have greatly changed the audible warning capabilities of fire equipment. Early fire equipment relied on people yelling and bells to alert pedestrians, riders, and wagons to their location and intentions. Today, speakers the size of a cereal bowl can deliver 10 times the warning with 1/10 the effort. To find out how sirens made it this far, we need to take a quick stroll down memory lane.

All the Bells and Whistles

“All the bells and whistles.” Many of us have heard that phrase before. Did you know it is thought to have originated, among other places, from early fire engines? The term means getting all the options or something that will turn heads. You purchase a brand-new vehicle with “all the bells and whistles.” 150 years ago, it was the primary way to get everyone’s attention.

This is Why Firetrucks Have Different Sirens

Bells and whistles were on locomotives, ships, and fire equipment. The history of the early fire apparatus is a remarkably interesting one. Before the advent of steam and gasoline engines, fire equipment was hand-drawn (meaning pushed or pulled by individuals) or pulled by horses. Hose carts and hand pumps mounted on wagon wheels were not very loud, yet people needed to be warned to get out of the way.

Bells mounted on the wagons and rung while moving were also used to warn people. Many fire departments still mount bells on their front bumpers as an homage to this early warning system that became synonymous with early fire departments.

Whistles were blown by firefighters and riders on the equipment to give warning of their approach. After the advent of the steamers and the steam engine, steam-powered whistles were used in their place. Early mechanical sirens were also basically big whistles that moved air over a diaphragm to make noise.

And finally, bugles, or megaphones, were used to yell at the crowds to get out of the way, and then used to bark orders at the scene of the fire. The bugle is still the symbol for officers in the fire service. As history became the present, the four aforementioned criteria-tradition, regulations, safety, and cost-dictate the different sirens firetrucks use to alert their presence.

Tradition in Today’s Sirens

Tradition is a funny thing. Those that belief in keeping traditions alive will work hard to ensure it happens. Fire departments will spend thousands of dollars on a bell that sits on the front bumper but is never used or is ineffective in today’s environment when it is used. Obsolete sirens are still mounted on equipment because” …that’s what we’ve always done.”

There are dozens of siren patterns, and some departments use the same pattern they have always used simply because they have always used it. Still, other departments will buy an older style mechanical siren over the newer technology electronic ones because of the “old school” look. Tradition is very strong in the fire service, and it is a factor many departments use when considering which sirens to use on their apparatus.

Siren Regulations as a Determining Factor

This is Why Firetrucks Have Different Sirens

Another major factor in determining the styles and volumes of sirens used by a fire department include the different rules and regulations that govern the area in which the fire department operates. Like most entities, fire departments must follow state and local guidelines for operation.

In addition to that, some federal standards and rules must be followed, as well as recommended practices for sirens and warning devices that come from governing bodies. These additional governing bodies do not have the power of enforcement but set the industry standards and expectations of operations for fire departments nationwide.

Standards may include regulating the decibel level at which sirens must sound, or the direction or clarity of the siren noise as it leaves the vehicle. Regulations may also include when the siren must be sounded, navigating intersections for example, and where it can be mounted on a vehicle.

How Sirens Improve Safety

The primary purpose of the siren is for audible warning of an approaching emergency vehicle. The siren, when combined with the flashing emergency lights, is very good at getting the attention of those in the path of the emergency vehicle.

This is Why Firetrucks Have Different Sirens

Sirens are synonymous with emergency vehicles, and, unlike emergency warning lights, have yet to be used for any other function outside of emergency vehicle response and operation. These clues in those who hear it that there is an approaching emergency vehicle and for them to take notice and be prepared for the emergency vehicle’s passing.

The sirens are usually broadcast over 100 watts externally mounted speakers that provide between 100 and 120 decibels of audible warning. The pitch of the siren also allows for it to carry further and for the sounds to remain intact over greater distances.

In rural areas, sirens can be heard for several miles. In metropolitan areas, the sound will not be able to travel as far and tends to bounce around and echo off buildings, but it is still performing its primary function-warning those in the immediate path of the emergency vehicle of its approach.

What about ambulances? Learn how they always know where to go HERE!

How Cost Plays a Role in Siren Choice

As with anything else in today’s world, the cost can play a significant role in a fire department’s selection of audible warning devices. Sirens have several cost factors that must be considered. There are 3 main components for a siren: the control box or unit mounted in the vehicle, the speaker mounted on the vehicle, and the wiring and installation of the two aforementioned components. The combination of these three components leads to the final cost of a siren.

Departments can get a very bare-bones siren model and speaker, and risk installing it themselves for a few hundred dollars. The fancier and more functional set-ups “with all the bells and whistles” can easily total a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars from purchase to finished installation. If a fire department has a fleet of 5 emergency vehicles, it does not take long to see how fast the cost can add up.

But you get what you pay for. Nicer models have public address (PA) functions and can have half a dozen different sounds and functions, while basic ones may have a single siren pattern only. Budget plays a big part in decisions, so most departments tend to settle on a midrange siren setup that meets all the safety and regulatory needs but little else.

Technological Improvements Along the Way

This is Why Firetrucks Have Different Sirens

Siren technology has greatly improved. Early models were mechanical and required someone to hand crank a handle to sound them. That turned into powered motors which turned the parts and then advanced to electronic or digital noises emulating the old mechanical sirens.

And technology continues to advance quickly, at times out of necessity. One of the greatest recent advances in the “rumblers” that emit vibrations with the sound waves. These were introduced in a functional model in the 2010s.

The need behind the introduction of this type of siren revolved around how quiet and soundproof vehicle passenger compartments have gotten. This, combined with the era of distracted driving and drivers with headphones in their ears, left a lot of sirens going unheeded and drivers not being able to hear them until they were very close.

These rumbling sirens emit vibrations that mimic the siren pattern, and they are felt by the people in front of the siren. It is only a minor sensation, but it works to get their attention and have them begin to pay attention as they search for the cause of the sensation.

Related Question

What agencies regulate fire departments?

While there is not a federal agency that regulates the daily operations of the fire service from a legal sense, fire departments must comply with all state, local, and federal recommendations for the operations they are performing.

For instance, while on the job, firefighters must comply with all workplace laws established by the federal, state, and local governments. This includes federal organizations such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), state agencies such as health departments and employment commissions, and local entities such as cities and county governments.

Fire departments must also follow all relevant traffic laws, all laws relevant to special certifications or licenses the individuals may have, and abide by the same series of inspections and insurances that a normal business may have operating in the same area.

Several agencies set national standards for the fire service. These are recommendations that should be followed to improve function and safety but have no real enforceable options unless departments or their controlling agents choose to adopt the standards. In this case, the standards could result in internal punishments or disciplinary actions, but seldom carry and legal or criminal enforcement powers.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.