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Waahh or Wee-oww? That Is the Question


In this Feb. 20, 2019, photo, a police vehicle responds in New York. That long, droning police and ambulance siren that has become part of the soundtrack of New York City for generations could be changing.
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Anyone who goes to New York City knows it can be very noisy. One of the common sounds you hear on the streets is a siren: a loud, high noise that comes from police cars, fire trucks, or ambulances. It sounds like “Waaaaaahhhhhhh.” People living in New York City often call city officials to complain the noise wakes them up and makes dogs cry out loudly.

Now, two city lawmakers want to change the sound so it is the same as sirens in Europe. Sirens there make a sound that goes from high to low, as in “WEE-oww-WEE-oww.” If the lawmakers’ proposal passes, all sirens on emergency vehicles in New York City would have to change within two years.

What do people say about the European siren?

Some think the European siren is gentler and causes less noise pollution. Helen Rosenthal is one of the supporters of the proposal. She says the people she represents tell her that “the current sirens in New York are a high-pitched, continuous noise — a nuisance.”

The sounds of European and American sirens are at the same decibel level, or loudness. But the European siren is at a lower frequency, so it would not seem as painful to a person’s ears. Carlina Rivera is another lawmaker supporting the new law. She says the European sirens are “not as piercing.”

One hospital has already changed its sirens. Mount Sinai Health System started using the high-low siren last year. The Mount Sinai Emergency Medical Service Director, Joseph Davis, played different siren options to find out which one the neighbors of the hospital liked better. He found that “people hated them all.” However, he said, the high-low siren was not as offensive.

Davis says changing the siren sound in an emergency vehicle is easy. An electronic box in each vehicle has seven different sounds. For example, one can make the sirens give a loud, long cry. Another can make a series of short, high cries, like a dog that is in pain. And another can make a sound so sharp and forceful that it seems to be making a hole in the air. Davis explains that workers could add the European siren to these choices.

Some don’t think change is a good idea. Linda Sachs lives near the Mount Sinai Hospital and hears the new high-low sirens. She likes the old ones better. The old ones never woke her up, she says, but the new ones make her shake in fear.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Verena Dobnik reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

What kind of sirens do you hear where you live? How do they make you feel? Are they piercing or the high-low kind? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

siren– n. a piece of equipment that produces a loud, high-pitched warning sound

ambulance– n. a vehicle used for taking hurt or sick people to the hospital especially in emergencies

high-pitched - adj. making a high sound​

nuisance n. a person, thing, or situation that is annoying or that causes trouble or problems

decibeln. a unit for measuring how loud a sound is

frequencyn. the number of times that something (such as a sound wave or radio wave) is repeated in a period of time (such as a second)

piercing adj. very loud and high-pitched

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