By Dom Nozzi
These assaulting, incessant, head-rattling sounds occur 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. They are the sounds of living in the middle of a war zone.
Is it Saigon in 1970?
Beirut in 1980?
Baghdad in 2007?
Over the years, when I lived in Gainesville FL, friends and family who visited from out of town invariably told me how astonished they were by the frequent, alarming sounds of low-flying helicopters and emergency vehicle sirens in Gainesville. How it seems much louder and much more frequent than what they experience in cities such as Washington DC or Miami.
For me, it led to sleep deprivation. Frayed nerves. Tension.
I called the Gainesville Police Department on a regular basis between midnight and 6 am to complain, and beg the police to stop circling the helicopter in downtown neighborhoods so I could get some sleep.
Of course, they ignored me.
How many who live downtown verge on a nervous breakdown due to this unrelenting, screaming, troubling noise?
How many have resigned themselves to what seems like a constant state of emergency, and have decided to somehow tough it out by taking sleeping pills or wearing ear muffs in bed?
How many have given up on downtown living and have vowed to move to the “peace and quiet” of a suburban home?
How many have vowed to never live in downtown — unable to stand the siege-like atmosphere?
Many assaulted citizens simply don’t know who to complain to. Or that it is even possible or appropriate to complain.
Others are (inaccurately) convinced that constantly circling helicopters and incessant, 24/7 convoys of shrieking emergency vehicle sirens are necessary to capture dangerous criminals or put out raging fires.
Some simply have lowered their expectations of the amount of quiet they can expect at night. They have given up on having a serene, calm, peaceful city.
I’m not one of them.
News flash: there are NOT dangerous murderers running around downtown who must be apprehended several times a night by a helicopter. The constantly circling police helicopters are circling not because they MUST, but because they CAN. It is too easy for the police to go after a petty burglar with a helicopter.
On balance, does tracking shoplifters with helicopters at 3 am result in a net benefit for our quality of life, despite the Baghdad tone it creates?
It is NOT necessary to use fire truck and police car emergency sirens as promiscuously as does the City of Gainesville (and many, many other cities – the list grows every month). A friend tells me his (much larger) city has a policy whereby emergency vehicle sirens are used significantly less between 11 pm and 6 am. And that when the station is near a neighborhood, the siren is not activated until a major road is reached. After all, there are significantly less cars on the road at that time, or on neighborhood streets. And a great many citizens are trying to sleep.
It is possible for a city to tone down its sirens.
At 6 am one morning in 2009, for example, I noticed (silently) flashing police car lights while living in Richmond VA. Which reminded me that I’ve heard significantly fewer sirens in this city than while living in Gainesville. Richmond is much larger than Gainesville. And it led the nation in murders in 1994. If Richmond can have quiet nights, why not other cities?
Are cities truly interested in promoting quality of life? In promoting an increase in the number of people who live in or near downtown?
If so, it is imperative that city-induced noise pollution be reduced.
First, the police helicopter needs to be permanently grounded or employed significantly less. I’m not convinced that helicopters reduce crime.
Let’s assume, though, that the chopper is useful when pursuing dangerous criminals (we can all agree that choppers are not needed to capture a teenager who has shoplifted candy at a grocery store). How often do we have dangerous murderers running around in our cities? Maybe once every 5 years? Certainly not three times a night.
City police and fire departments need to follow the lead of the small handful of cities showing wise leadership on this issue. Significantly reduce siren use in the early morning. Especially on neighborhood streets.
To be truly serious about quality of life and increasing the desirability of living in or visiting the town center, cities must show the leadership that it takes to rein in excessive emergency vehicle sirens and helicopters.
The world will not come to an end if this step is taken. It might even be a better world.
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