Sirens May Do 'More Harm Than Good,' Research Shows

The ear-piercing sirens used by emergency vehicles are shown to have little impact on patient outcomes while contributing to more dangerous road conditions, experts say.

October 21, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Emergency Response

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Some experts are questioning the effectiveness of sirens and lights for emergency vehicles, noting that "[s]tudies have found that the time saved responding to medical calls by relying on lights, sirens and speed is not meaningful in most cases." As Christopher Mele reports, the overuse of sirens "can be a force multiplier for more harm than good."

Research has found that "[e]mergency drivers are more likely to engage in risky behavior when they use lights and sirens," while "other drivers sometimes respond in unpredictable ways," creating dangerous conditions that can lead to crashes. In fact, "an average of 4,500 such accidents occurred annually from 1992 to 2011, resulting in an average of 33 deaths and injuries to 2,600 people each year." 

As far as their effectiveness at reaching patients, "the use of lights and sirens has been shown to have little bearing on patient outcomes," saving "an average of 42 seconds to three minutes off a trip to the scene of a call. According to Dr. Douglas F. Kupas, E.M.S. medical director for Geisinger E.M.S. in central Pennsylvania, "[m]ost of the things that are time-dependent are a very tiny minority of the E.M.S. calls." With consistent exposure to sirens, EMS workers "can suffer premature hearing loss," while patients "can be stressed by the noise."

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