S.F. Neighbors Fed Up with Sirens, Air Horns

SAN FRANCISCO — Living in any city, particularly one as small as San Francisco, comes with its challenges- the loud neighbors, the lack of parking, the graffiti, the panhandlers.

Then, there are the sirens and air horns.

If you live near a fire station and if your home is in San Francisco, the odds are good, because there are 42 stations spread out over 49 square miles you may have taken these periodic wails and honks as another given nuisance.

But a large group of citizens in the city’s center the Tenderloin, Polk Street, South of Market and central Market areas have had enough. Three years ago, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White signed a general work order saying that fire truck air horns should be limited to “high-risk” situations, but neighbors say little has changed and they are leaning on the chief to do more.

Some of the aggravated neighbors live near Station 3 on Post Street, believed to be the busiest fire station in the nation, with more than 7,000 engine runs every year. The air horns and sirens also tend to ricochet off taller buildings common in the area, amplifying the sound.

“It drives everybody nuts,” said Ron Case, an architect who has lived and worked on the 1000 block of Polk Street for nearly a decade. “It happens six times a day … if you’re having a meeting, you just have to stop until they go by. They start honking the horns at the corner of Post and Polk streets and you have to wait to talk until they pass Geary Street”.

At a community meeting last week organized by the Community Leadership Alliance, Hayes-White told a group of neighbors that she would work to mitigate the sound. But she can’t stifle the noise entirely, she said Tuesday. Sirens, she said, are used to give people at a distance a warning, but the air horns are necessary to notify cars and pedestrians in a fire truck’s path to get out of the way.

“In the Fire Department it’s a delicate balance between being able to perform our mission of protecting lives and property and being a good neighbor,” she said.

Part of the problem, firefighters and neighbors agree, is that the number of emergency calls has increased greatly since 1997, when the Fire Department took the city’s paramedic division under its wings. The department now sends a fire engine and ambulance to all 911 calls, unless it is classified from the get-go as a non-emergency medical call. That change increased the yearly calls by the tens of thousands.

“Maybe we should re-evaluate how we send out fire engines,” said John Hanley, president of the local firefighters union. “But if you’re sick, you want us there, you’re not worried about an air horn.”

Hayes-White agreed, noting that any serious medical emergency needs at least four to six people to respond, not just two or three paramedics. The city has worked with its 911 call center during the past year to better classify the calls so that fewer vehicles can be sent on some runs.

But every year, Hayes-White said, there more 911 calls than the year before meaning more sirens and air horns are vexing people like Michael Pedersen.

Pedersen, who has lived in the Tenderloin for about 10 years, pointed to a 2004 city controller’s report that noted that the number of emergency calls is also inflated by false alarms from call boxes and commercial alarms.

“It’s a very inefficient system,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling the number of calls. We can’t have this every 10 or 15 minutes … You see kids crying, mothers don’t know what to do. It’s completely wacko, uncivilized.”

Pedersen wants the department to stop using air horns, and other neighbors have asked the department to lower the decibels of the sirens. Neither option seems feasible to firefighters.

The department’s sirens wail at roughly the same decibel level as other jurisdictions, the fire chief said. And the air horns should be used sparingly but cannot be quieted completely, she said.

To curb the use of horns, Hayes-White said her department and the Municipal Transportation Agency are considering the use of traffic lights that would automatically change to green for emergency vehicles.

Hayes-White, who lives near Stonestown, said she also hears sirens day and night, though she admits that the noise is less jarring and frequent than for Tenderloin residents

“The takeaway is that we are trying to look at better ways to reduce the adverse impacts,” she said. “But there’s no way we can totally avoid having sirens and air horns … it’s part of any dense urban setting.”

“It’s a very inefficient system. It’s mind- boggling the number of calls. We can’t have this every 10 or 15 minutes.”

Michael Pedersen

Tenderloin resident

Public safety demands that people be warned when firefighters respond to emergencies, but residents of some areas say they can’t take the sirens and horns. Mike Kepka / The Chronicle