NYPD’s taxonomy of sound

See? The New York Times is still good for something! Here’s a wonderful little piece on the NYPD’s use of various kinds of siren sound, which succeeds on a couple of levels.

First, I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing is inherently fascinating to me. It’s a demystification of something that any New Yorker literally experiences each and every day of their life, has probably wondered about, at least idly, but that few would think to inquire into.

Fewer still, of course, would have the resources and credentials to engage the Police Department in a friendly conversation about siren strategies, and that’s the second reason why I was so chuffed with this piece. This is what a great city paper should be doing for its readers: using its access to get at places they can’t, giving them informational tools and resources that would ordinarily be beyond reach. Reporters should be asking, digging, probing, dissecting out the apparently mundane workings of the municipal apparatus.

If this article happens to be a benign and toothless example, it’s still just enough to make me feel like the Times hasn’t lost the instinct completely; I’m reminded of their explication of the NYPD’s other menacingly opaque gift to the city, the critical response surge. (It’s also a perfect use of multimedia tools and the online channel to deliver news that a printed paper simply could not, but that’s a different story.)

For me, the heart of the piece was this beautifully Cageian assertion: “Every time you hear that distinct and invasive wail…chances are the police officer behind it has made a deliberate, even aesthetic choice.” It also turns out that there’s a logic behind the unnerving change-up in siren sounds we’re all so familiar with: avoiding the “wash-out effect,” in which two or more cars arriving at an incident collide, because their reliance on a single frequency of siren noise has made their drivers unable to hear one another. I don’t mind admitting that these two pieces of information will change the way I perceive the sounds of my city, however subtly, and that’s kind of a neat thing for an article to be able to do.

Here are the various sirens mentioned in the piece:
the yelp, which is apparently used as a vehicle approaches an intersection;
– the standard-issue wail;
– the “hi-lo,” with its European insinuation of boxy little Polizei cars hurtling over rainslick, cobbled streets;
the fast or “priority” siren;
the airhorn;
– and the newest candidate for accession to the car’s standard complement, a low-frequency provocation called the Rumbler. (This last is unsettlingly reminiscent of the notional crowd-disruption technique we used to call “brown noise” during my days in PSYOP; I leave the reader to speculate as to its likely use in enforcing “free-speech zones,” etc.)

3 responses to “NYPD’s taxonomy of sound”

  1. Christopher Fahey says :

    Disappointed that neither you nor the Times references KRS-One’s “Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police!“.

  2. speedbird says :

    It is a rare lapse indeed. I tend to cite KRS-One even when he’s not strictly relevant – fresh for ’88, you suckers.

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