by Maria Cramer

The Boston Globe (

May 19, 2008

Din-filled times spur new device

(Click here to view accompanying video)

Modern technology has been hard on the old-fashioned police siren.

Drivers are pumping up the volume in their cars to earth-shaking decibels, chattering on their cellphones or texting their friends.

Others are driving in cars so insulated from outside noise, they are practically sound-proof.

Enter the Rumbler.

With a press of the button, Boston police can now send a low-frequency sound wave to get the attention of a distracted driver blocking the way.

The targeted drivers will hear, in addition to the conventional siren, a deep, guttural sound, then feel a vibration beneath their feet. The goal, police said, is for the driver to look up, see the flashing blue lights, and get out of the way well before the police cruiser has approached the car.

“This gives them advanced warning that there is an emergency vehicle that needs to get out of the intersection,” said Superintendent-in-chief Robert Dunford.

Boston police are among at least 150 departments around the country that have embraced the new technology, which was developed a year and a half ago for Florida highway patrol officers who were looking for a new siren that would alert distracted drivers.

In traffic-choked Boston, police quickly welcomed the new Rumbler, which is manufactured by Federal Signal Corporation in Illinois.

The department has installed the device in 48 new police cars. Eventually, police hope to equip all new marked cruisers in the department with the $400 device. The department buys about 80 new marked cruisers every year.

Drivers “are not hearing us,” Dunford said. “They’re not looking into their mirrors, checking for what’s behind them, as they should . . . It’s a very dangerous situation that’s developing.”

The technology is fairly simple. A pair of woofers – loudspeakers that produce low-frequency sounds – are installed in the cruisers and attached by wires to the car horn switch. After an officer turns on the siren, he can activate the Rumbler by hitting the horn. The Rumbler, which can be felt as far away as 200 feet, is programmed to switch off after 10 seconds, but can be reactivated with another push of the horn.

The din has unnerved some.

“I live on a thoroughfare and recently I’m often woken up by a noise that made me think the apartment is getting attacked by a sea monster,” wrote one commentator on the blog Universal Hub.

Members of Noise Free America, a national organization dedicated to reducing noise, have bemoaned the new technology.

“It’s just like having a boom car drive by with the base pumping, but it’s to the tune of the police siren,” said David Klavitter, an activist with the Washington, D.C., chapter of the organization. “It’s kind of ominous.”

But, he said, the Rumbler is less a nuisance and more a sign of a dangerously din-filled world.

“It’s a public safety issue when our society is so loud that public safety officials need to up the ante in order to get someone’s attention,” Klavitter said.

“If somebody’s life could be saved because police can get to a scene a few minutes faster, get through traffic a few minutes faster, I think that’s good. But what’s the next step?”

About half a dozen cities and towns in Massachusetts have installed the Rumbler into their police fleet, said Richard Snyder, the company’s senior district manager, who approached Boston with the technology about eight months ago.

“We still have a lot of local departments that are still evaluating it because it’s so new,” he said.

Sergeant Thomas Romeo, who is in charge of the 15-car fleet for the North Reading Police Department, said the Rumbler is here to stay.

“Right now, this is cutting edge and it seems to be working,” he said.

Even in his quiet, rural town about 15 miles north of Boston, people tune out sirens, Romeo said.

“Not that you hear sirens here all the time, but it’s a part of everyday life in America,” he said.

Drivers “don’t even acknowledge it.”

But the vibrations of the Rumbler are so foreign to drivers, they immediately notice it, said Romeo, whose goal is to install the device in every one of the department’s cruisers.

“I won’t be in a car without them now,” said Romeo. “I just won’t do it. I really, truly believe you’re going to see it in every police car in the country.”