Siren (noisemaker)

Siren (noisemaker)

A siren is a loud noise maker. The original version would yield sounds under water [Adolphe Ganot (translator: Edmund Atkinson), "Elementary Treatise on Physics: Experimental and Applied", 8th ed. (N.Y., N.Y.: Wm. Wood and Co., 1877), pages 188-189. Available on-line at: .] [J.H. Poynting and J.J. Thomson, "Sound" (London: Charles Griffin and Co., 1899), page 37.] , suggesting a link with the sirens of Greek mythology. Most modern ones are civil defense or "air raid" sirens, tornado sirens, or the sirens on emergency service vehicles such as ambulances, police cars and fire trucks. There are two general types, pneumatic and electronic.

Many fire sirens also pull double duty as tornado or civil defense sirens, alerting an entire community of impending danger. Most fire sirens are either mounted on the roof of a fire station, or on a pole next to the fire station. Fire sirens can also be mounted near government buildings, on top of tall structures such as water towers, as well as in systems; where several sirens are sporadically placed around a town for better sound coverage. Most fire sirens are single tone and mechanically driven by electric motors with a rotor attached to the shaft. Some newer sirens are electronically driven by speakers, though not as common. The most common types of sirens used in the United States of America include the Federal Signal Model 1, Model 2, Model 5, 3T22, Thunderbolt 1003, STH10, STL-10, and the Sterling (now Sentry) siren Model M. Fire sirens are often called "fire whistles", "fire alarms", "fire horns." Although there is is no standard signaling of fire sirens, some utilize codes to inform firefighters to the location of the fire. Civil defense sirens pulling double duty as a fire siren often can produce an alternating "hi-lo" signal (similar to a British police car) as the fire signal, or a slow wail (typically 3x) as to not confuse the public with the standard civil defense signals of alert (steady tone) and attack (fast wavering tone).


Some time before 1799, the first siren was invented by the Scottish natural philosopher (physicist) John Robison. [John Robison, "Encyclopedia Britannica", 3rd ed., 1799.] Robison’s sirens were used as musical instruments; specifically, they powered some of the pipes in an organ. Robison’s siren consisted of a stopcock that opened and closed a pneumatic tube. The stopcock was apparently driven by the rotation of a wheel. In 1819 an improved siren was invented and named by Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour. [Charles Cagniard de la Tour (1819) "Sur la Sirène, nouvelle machine d'acoustique destinée à mésures les vibrations de l'air qui contient la son," "Annales de chimie et de physique", vol. 12, pages 167-171.] De la Tour’s siren consisted of two perforated disks that were mounted coaxially at the outlet of a pneumatic tube. One disk was stationary, while the other disk rotated. The rotating disk periodically interrupted the flow of air from the fixed disk, producing a tone. [For descriptions of Robison’s and de la Tour’s sirens, see: Robert T. Beyer, "Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics" (N.Y., N.Y.: Springer Verlag, 1998), page 30. De la Tour’s siren is illustrated on page 31. De la Tour’s siren is also illustrated on page 12 of: Hermann von Helmholtz, "On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, 3rd ed." (London, England: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1875). (Reprinted in 1954 by Dover Publishing Inc. of N.Y., N.Y.)] [The rotating disk of such a siren is driven by air pressure alone: The holes in each disk are not drilled perpendicularly to the disk. Instead, the holes slope in a clockwise direction in one disk and counterclockwise in the other. To escape, the flowing air must therefore change direction sharply, driving the rotating disk like a turbine. See: Robert T. Beyer, "Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics" (N.Y., N.Y.: Springer Verlag, 1998), page 30. See also: Michael Lamm, “Feel the noise: The art and science of making sound alarming,” "Invention and Technology Magazine", vol. 18, no. 3, pages 22–27 (Winter 2003). (Lamm’s article is available on-line at: .)]

Instead of disks, most modern sirens use two concentric cylinders, which have slots parallel to their length. The inner cylinder rotates while the outer one remains stationary. As air under pressure flows out of the slots of the inner cylinder and then escapes through the slots of the outer cylinder, the flow is periodically interrupted, creating a tone. The earliest such siren was made shortly before 1887 by a “Mr. Slight” for the Ailsa Craig lighthouse in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. [David A. Stevenson (1887) “Ailsa Craig lighthouse and fog signals,” "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers", vol. 89, pages 297-303. Regarding the siren, see pages 300 and 301.] [Frederick A. Talbot, "Lighthouses and Lightships" (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. P. Lippincott, 1913), pages 59–61.] [Wayne Wheeler, “The history of fog signals - part 1,” "The Keeper’s Log", vol. 6, no. 4, pages 20–23 (Summer 1990) and “The history of fog signals - part 2,” "The Keeper’s Log", vol. 7, no.1, pages 8–17 (Fall 1990). See especially page 11 of part 2.] [Brian Clearman, "Transportation-markings: A Historical Survey, 1750–2000" (St. Benedict, Oregon: Mount Angel Abbey, 2002), pages 170-171. Available on-line at: .] [Sirens used as fog signals: . Scroll down to “Sirens”. (Contains mention of Mr. Slight, and diagram of cylindrical siren.)] When commercial electric power became available, sirens were no longer driven by external sources of compressed air, but by electric motors, which generated the necessary flow of air via a simple centrifugal fan, which was incorporated into the siren’s inner cylinder. To direct a siren’s sound and to maximize its power output, sirens are fitted with a horn, which transforms the high pressure sound waves in the siren to lower pressure sound waves in the open air.

The earliest way of summoning volunteer firemen to a fire was by ringing of a bell, either mounted atop the fire station, or in the belfry of a local church. As electricity became available, the first fire sirens were manufactured. Two early manufacturers of fire sirens were the Decot siren and Sterling Siren. Both started manufacturing fire sirens around 1900 to 1905. However, many communities have since deactivated their fire sirens due to pagers becoming available for fire dept. users to use.



The pneumatic siren, which is a free aerophone, consists of a rotating disk with holes in it (called a siren disk or ), such that the material between the holes interrupts a flow of air from fixed holes on the outside of the unit (called a stator). As the holes in the rotating disk alternately prevent and allow air to flow it results in alternating compressed and rarefied air pressure, i.e. sound. Such sirens can consume large amounts of energy.

In United States English language usage, vehicular pneumatic sirens are sometimes referred to as mechanical or coaster sirens, to differentiate them from devices which make noise electronically. One example is the Q2B electromechanical siren sold by Federal Signal Corporation. Because of its high current draw (280 amps when power is applied) its application is normally limited to fire apparatus, though it has seen increasing use on type IV ambulances and rescue-squad vehicles. Its distinct tone of urgency, sound power (123 dB at 10 feet) and square sound waves help account for its effectiveness.


Electronic sirens incorporate circuits such as oscillators, modulators, and amplifiers to synthesize a selected siren tone (wail, yelp, pierce/priority/phaser, hi-lo, scan, airhorn, manual, and a few more) which is played through external speakers. It is not unusual, especially in the case of modern fire engines, to see an emergency vehicle equipped with both types of sirens. Oftentimes, police sirens also use the interval of a tritone to help draw attention.

Other types

Steam whistles were also used as a warning device if a supply of steam was present, such as a sawmill or factory. These were common before fire sirens became widely available. Fire horns, large compressed air horns, also were and still are used as an alternative to a fire siren. Many fire horn systems were wired to fire pull boxes that were located around a town, and thus would "blast out" a code in respect to that boxes location. For example, pull box number 233, when pulled, would trigger the fire horn to sound a two blasts, followed by a pause, followed by three blasts, followed by a pause, followed by three more blasts. In the days before telephones, this was the only way firefighters would know the location of a fire. The coded blasts were usually repeated several times. This technology was also applied to many steam whistles as well. Also, some fire sirens are fitted with brakes and dampers to enable them to sound out codes as well. These units tended to break down a lot, and thus, aren't common or produced anymore. Other bizarre methods of alerting firemen have been incorporated as well.

As art

Sirens are also used as musical instruments, such as in Edgard Varèse's "Hyperprism" (1924), "Ionisation" (1931), recorded, in his "Poeme Electronique" (1958), George Antheil's "Ballet Mécanique" (1926), "The Klaxon: March of the Automobiles" (1929 by Henry Fillmore, The Chemical Brothers's "Song to the Siren" and, (in a CBS News "60 Minutes" segment) by experimental percussionist Evelyn Glennie.


Approvals or certifications

Governments may have standards for vehicle-mounted sirens. For example, in California, sirens are designated Class A or Class B. In non-technical terms, a Class A siren is so loud it can be mounted nearly anywhere on a vehicle. Class B sirens are not as loud and must be mounted on a plane parallel to the level roadway and parallel to the direction the vehicle travels when driving in a straight line.

Sirens must also be approved by local agencies, in some cases. For example, the California Highway Patrol approves specific models for use on every emergency vehicle in the state. The approval is important because it ensures the devices perform adequately. Moreover, using unapproved devices could be a factor in determining fault if a collision occurs.

Best practices

The worst installations are those where the siren sound is emitted above and slightly behind the vehicle occupants such as cases where a light-bar mounted speaker is used on a sedan or pickup. Vehicles with concealed sirens also tend to have high noise levels inside. In some cases, concealed or poor installations produce noise levels which can cause permanent hearing damage to vehicle occupants.

Siren speakers, or mechanical sirens, should always be mounted ahead of the passenger compartment. This reduces the noise for occupants and makes two-way radio and mobile telephone audio more intelligible during siren use. It also puts the sound where it will serve a useful purpose. Studies in some agencies operating emergency vehicles show sound levels over 120 dB(A) in the passenger compartment. In one study, a specific vehicle's engine sounds and the siren produced sound levels over 123 dB(A) in the passenger compartment.

Electric-motor-driven mechanical sirens may draw 50 to 200 amperes at 12 volts (DC) when spinning up to operating speed. Appropriate wiring and transient protection for modern engine control computers is a necessary part of an installation. Wiring should be similar in size to the wiring to the vehicle engine starter motor. Mechanical vehicle mounted devices usually have an electric brake, a solenoid that presses a pad of friction material against the siren rotor. When an emergency vehicle arrives on-scene or is cancelled en route, the vehicle operator can rapidly stop the siren.

Multi-speaker electronic sirens often are alleged to have dead spots at certain angles to the vehicle's direction of travel. These are caused by phase differences. The sound coming from the speaker array can phase-cancel in some situations. A crude, static test for dead spots is to apply white noise from an unsquelched F.M. two-way radio to the siren amplifier's auxiliary input then walk around the vehicle making sure the sound doesn't have any unexpected nulls.

See also

* Civil defense siren
* Thunderbolt siren
* Klaxon


External links

* [ Various examples]
*PDFlink| [ Regulatory requirements for sirens on California-licensed vehicles, (Author: California Highway Patrol).] |206 KiB
* [ The Siren Archive] , pictures of fire sirens

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