by Oren Dorell
February 7, 2008
A new police siren that can be felt as well as heard — through closed windows and inside homes and office buildings — is rattling some people who say cops should quit the technology borrowed from souped-up car stereos.
Called the Rumbler, the speaker system emits a low, stomach-thumping moan that makes it more noticeable than the high-pitched wail of the traditional siren.
Police departments say the Rumbler is a great warning signal that gets the attention of drivers whose hearing can be impaired by blasting car stereos, cellphone gabbing and personal music players.
“It has the potential to save lives,” says Capt. Jim Wells of the Florida Highway Patrol, who helped develop the Rumbler.
But detractors say the Rumbler is far too jarring and annoys more than motorists impeding a cruiser.
“If they want to get people’s attention, there are a lot of ways to do that rather than creating a lot of obnoxious noises,” says Aaron Friedman, founder of the Silent Majority, an anti-car alarm group in New York City. “It’s all a question of people being able to go about their lives and not be harassed.”
At least 60 police departments have purchased the $350 device, according to Rumbler manufacturer Federal Signal. The largest agency to adopt them is the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Department, which has installed Rumblers in about five dozen vehicles and intends to install more as it replaces its 1,600-car fleet.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier says the Rumbler is necessary in an age where people are tuning out the world with cellphones and iPods. She says the device creates “a vibrating sound wave” that rattles the rearview mirror of cars nearby.
“In the age of technology there’s always something that distracts folks. This helps shake that distraction,” she says. “You just can’t miss the Rumbler.”
Some groups would like to.
This month, the advocacy group Noise Free America awarded Federal Signal a “Noisy Dozen award” for creating “the greatest threat to peace and quiet since the invention of the boom car itself.”
Noise Free America has been working with police in several states to enforce noise ordinances, especially against so-called “boom cars” that have loud stereos and powerful sub-woofer speakers that amplify low-frequency base sounds, says Ron Czalpala, the group’s Kentucky representative.
“The whole point we’re trying to make is police are going to be adding to the noise,” Czalpala says.
Tom Morgan, vice president for sales and marketing at Federal Signal’s mobile systems group, says his company’s product is not as disruptive as critics say.
The Rumbler’s tone is linked to the regular siren, but two octaves lower, and is limited to eight seconds. That should be enough time to get through an intersection but not so long that people become desensitized to it, Morgan says.
Capt. Wells suggested the idea of a low-frequency siren to Federal Signal after experiencing the thumping vibrations of a modified car stereo at a stoplight. He says it is an issue of safety.
A study by the Florida Highway Patrol, which uses a low-frequency amplifier made by Code 3, which unlike the Rumbler cannot be felt, found 14% fewer accidents after a combination of new sirens and lights were installed.
David Klavitter, founder Questforquiet.org, an anti-noise blog, bemoans that the Rumbler “adds to the cacophony” of modern life but he doesn’t plan to complain.
“If it means that someone will get help or a life will be saved, I guess it’s a public safety issue,” he says.