HOUSTON—Despite a new type of siren that one local police department contends is reducing collisions of its emergency vehicles with civilian cars, two of the biggest local police agencies have no plans to use it on their fleets.
The new sirens sound like regular ones except at a lower tone. The lower tone actually vibrates other vehicles, not unlike when someone pulls up next to you with a high wattage, big sub-woofer sound system blasting music with a heavy bass tone.
The threat of such collisions is very real. In the Houston Police Department, the area’s largest law enforcement agency, a police vehicle running with lights and siren crashes every two to three days.
Those and other HPD accidents in the past five years have killed seven citizens and two officers, according to data provided by HPD to the 11 News I-Team.
Viewing crash scene video found in the last several years in KHOU-TV’s archives revealed over a dozen such collisions involving various departments. Most of the crashes—many causing total damage to the vehicles involved—happened at intersections.
None of this is news to Deputy Donald James, who is now with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, but was previously a firefighter and medic.
"I’ve been broadsided in an ambulance.(I’ve) been hit in a fire truck. (All) going through an intersection," James said.
He said a big problem in those accidents, and virtually every time he was "running hot," was the emergency vehicle’s siren.
"They ignore it. People ignore it," James said.
"There’s usually always close calls," said John Hughes, who often is behind the wheel of an ambulance in Alvin. Though tiny compared to Houston, Alvin has had its share of crashes at intersections.
One crash of an ambulance in Alvin two years ago prompted a rethinking: Do drivers no longer hear sirens?
"They’ll be on their phone, have their radio up. They can’t hear us," said Billy Dalmolin of the Alvin Fire Department.
One national study said as much.
"Sirens will never become an effective warning device," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation in a study many years ago. ("Effectiveness of Audible Devices on Emergency Vehicles", National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1977).
But now, decades later, there may be something that makes sirens work better.
It’s a heavy base speaker, a sub-woofer, mounted under the hood of the patrol car or on the front bumper of an ambulance. Sold under the names including "Howler" and "Rumbler," the sub-woofers are usually activated by the driver of the emergency vehicle only when approaching traffic or an intersection.
Since installing them two years ago on all 22 of its emergency vehicles, the City of Alvin’s fleet manager, Terry Earl, said they’ve had far fewer close calls and no collisions. How does he explain the difference?
"Kind of like when these boom boxes come up next to your car. You hear them when you might not hear anything else," said Earl.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office heard about the new sirens and in the past year, and used them on several patrol cars as a pilot project. The office’s director of mobile technology, Chris Gore, said the difference was startling.
"It’s like parting water," Gore said as he showed 11 News dash cam video of cars quickly making way for the patrol car with its new siren.
"No one got in front of him and blocked him," Gore said.
A spokesman for Houston police also said the department has checked the new sirens out and liked them.
But here’s the thing—neither HPD nor Harris County has any plans to buy them.
HPD said the new sirens are double the price of the old ones, and with a tight budget, HPD said they’re not affordable. Harris County expressed similar concerns, though it’s still evaluating the cost, which is about $400 per vehicle.
In Alvin, they see it differently. Fleet manager Earl said the sirens will pay for themselves if they keep reducing collisions.
"You don’t hurt the public, you don’t hurt the officer, and you don’t damage property," said Earl.