Blue emergency lights.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Psychological Impact of Sirens

By Aileen Kwun
July 25, 2020
1 minute read

As civic life came to a grinding halt this spring, with cities in lockdown around the world, the vivacious cacophony of urban life dulled to a quiet murmur, overcome only by the wail of ambulance sirens cutting through empty streets. Several months on, the trauma and alarm of that sound rings on heavily, with a delicate unease, in our hearts and minds. “Every alarm signals a person in crisis, and that person’s fate is inevitably bound to the fates of others—family and friends. It is a noise that deserves moral attention,” as Siri Hustvedt wrote in a beautiful Financial Times essay in late April. “I have come to think of the sirens as the city’s heartbreaking music, a high-pitched dirge that accompanies the number in the newspaper every day.”

Inciting discomfort and dread, the siren is a noise that, by design, cannot be ignored. Blaring at 110 decibels on average—nearly double the threshold of noise known to provoke psychological trauma in humans, to say nothing of the emergency responders tasked with employing them—the piercing noise takes a toll on its own, punctuating the persistence of pain and loss in this tragic chapter of history. Omnipresent and unavoidable, this hostile siren song is a soundtrack of suffering that we constantly hope not to hear at all.