Aug. 24—A downtown Chicago alderman who once complained that ambulance sirens were interrupting his toddler's sleep says some relief may be in sight.
A new state law, which Gov. Bruce Rauner signed this week and kicks in Jan. 1, directs ambulance operators to use a siren and lights "only when it is reasonably necessary to warn pedestrians and other drivers of the approach thereof while responding to an emergency call or transporting a patient who presents a combination of circumstances resulting in a need for immediate medical intervention." Current law calls for continuous use.
Because the new law only addresses Illinois cities with populations of more than 1 million, it would only affect Chicago, which counts 2.7 million residents.
But whether it will make a difference in the rhythm of a community that includes Northwestern Memorial and Lurie Children's hospitals as neighbors remains to be seen. Ald. Brian Hopkins—who told the Tribune last year that his then 2-year-old son had trouble napping because of the noise—hopes the change will at least reduce the frequency of siren noise in his neighborhood during overnight hours.
Larry Langford, spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, said the law will have "minimal" effect on department operations. The law on the books, as the department interprets it, allows ambulance operators some discretion on sirens, but calls for continuous use of emergency lights, he said.
"As a practical matter use of the siren has always been done with commonsense discretion," Langford said in an email, explaining that paramedics will continue to always use emergency lights from the time they respond to an emergency call to when a patient is transported to a hospital.
Hopkins said residents have been complaining for years about how loud sirens are on ambulances are but it wasn't until recently that the public started to take the complaints seriously.
"But over time, people start to understand that it is a quality-of-life issue, it's a public health issue," Hopkins said. "As it (an ambulance) passes, it's actually ear-piercing. It's to the point where it could be painful."
During a community meeting last year, some Streeterville residents expressed frustrations over the noise and frequency of sirens. One resident said the noise from the sirens had gotten so bad that he started wearing construction ear protectors around his home.
Robert Johnson, a board member of Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, said this week that the group is happy to see something came out of the meetings residents had with elected officials last year about the noises from ambulances. Johnson lives in Streeterville and said he constantly hears the ambulances traveling through his neighborhood.
"I think this is a good first step," Johnson said.
Hopkins said he hopes the change to state law will mean that ambulance drivers will opt to keep the siren off during overnight hours, when there isn't traffic congestion or when it might be better to use a horn.
"It frees them up to use their own judgement," he said.
Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, was the sponsor of the bill and described the changes as a balance between the needs of emergency workers and those who live in downtown Chicago.
"This bill is a critical measure addressing quality of life and safety for downtown residents, where excessive siren noise can cause erratic driving patterns and permanent hearing loss," Mitchell said in an email. "The new law allows first responders the discretion to turn off their sirens on occasions when the patient or situation has stabilized."
Hopkins, whose 2nd ward includes the Near North and Gold Coast neighborhoods, said he worked with Mitchell on the measure. Hopkins said he plans to advocate for further legislation to reduce the decibels of emergency sirens.
"The notion that they have to be loud so you could hear it 3 miles away is incorrect," Hopkins said. "It's a matter of public safety and safe driving to ensure that the operators of emergency vehicles don't inadvertently cause other collisions as a result of over-driving the warning system."
Hopkins said sirens should be reduced to 90 decibels.
Chicago fire officials previously said the sirens reach 120 decibels, which is below the 123-decibel limit set by federal regulation. According to the state law, an ambulance must be equipped with a siren that reaches 100 decibels when the vehicle is 50 feet away.
Noises that reach 110 decibels can cause hearing problems if there is regular and unprotected exposure of more than 1.5 minutes per day, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Brittney Sprouse, an audiologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said hearing something as loud as an emergency siren can cause hearing loss depending on how close someone is to the sound and how often it's being heard.
"It has the potential to be damaging to the ears the closer you are to the source," Sprouse said. "If it's something that is passing by, it certainly can cause a sensation of pain, it could cause ringing in the ears."
There are other things that can skew the noise level such as the material of buildings and the things inside a place, Sprouse said. Items like carpet or window treatments could reduce the noise level or residents could try sleeping with earplugs, she said.