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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver police cars to be equipped with new rumbling siren

A police car patrols as people wait to cross Main Street and East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, December 18, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Despite a move-over law, bright lights and the wail of sirens, many Vancouverites either don't see or don't hear emergency vehicles in the city's increasingly dense downtown. To reduce the risk of deadly collisions, Vancouver's fleet of police cars will soon be equipped with a rumbling siren that is felt as much as heard.

The new siren operates on the same principle as a subwoofer, emitting a deep, low-frequency rumble that will alert inattentive motorists and pedestrians that an emergency vehicle is approaching in a hurry.

"It's hard to describe; it isn't like your body begins to vibrate, but you feel it," said Rob Rothwell, the fleet manager for the Vancouver Police Department. "It's far more effective at getting the attention of people who can't hear our normal siren due to sound insulation in their car or a loud audio system."

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The sirens have been tested on 30 police vehicles over the past year to rave reviews, according to Mr. Rothwell. The rumbler won't eliminate the traditional siren, but will be activated for short bursts when needed.

While the soundproofing in modern cars has made for a more enjoyable driving experience, it also has had the unintended effect of making more drivers unaware of their surroundings. The proliferation of noise-cancelling ear buds on sidewalks and bike paths has had a similar effect.

Not all Vancouver drivers purposefully ignore sirens. With so many competing sounds on city streets, the traditional sirens that are heard dozens of times daily have become an easily missed part of the cityscape.

Vancouver's changing architecture has also led the fire department to experiment with the sirens. Surrounded by new condo towers, the medical unit operating out of the No. 8 Yaletown fire hall has used the rumbler for three years. The department is still mulling whether to install the siren on future vehicles.

"There have been complaints about noisy sirens and other complaints that people can't hear us," said Eric Froese, who runs vehicle operations for Vancouver's fire service. "Now that downtown is increasingly residential, some people don't like the noise, which is unfortunate because this is necessary for us to get people's attention."

He says that fire crews appreciate the "little nudge" the siren has on motorists.

The rumbler siren is already used by some emergency services in Canada and the U.S. – often ambulance providers who are interested in the additional margin of safety. However, the police department says the sirens will become standard on new police vehicles.

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The force is currently phasing out the venerable Crown Victoria, a mainstay of policing for decades and feared sight along highways. Over the next three years, 180 new Dodge Charger patrol cars will also be equipped with the sirens as well as brighter LED lights as a safety measure.

Citing 225 ambulance accidents over the past four years, the B.C. Ambulance Service downgraded a number of call types from emergency to routine earlier this year. Part of the rationale was to reduce the risk of emergency vehicles colliding with motorists.

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