Manitoba

'Everybody takes notice': New siren shakes things up for Winnipeg emergency vehicles

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is literally shaking things up in its latest attempt to make sure drivers are aware of oncoming emergency vehicles.

District chief of paramedic operations vehicles equipped with vibrating siren

Michelle Bessas, district chief of paramedic operations, switches on the new Whelen Howler siren system, which emits low-frequency vibrations. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service's latest attempt to make sure drivers are aware of oncoming emergency vehicles might not be ground-breaking, but it's certainly ground-shaking.

The service's fleet of district chief of paramedic operations vehicles have been equipped with a new siren system that does more than make noise — it emits a low-frequency tone that can send vibrations into the cars ahead of them.

It means drivers can literally feel the sound, and that's hard not to notice, said Tom Howards, who manages the WFPS's fleet of light vehicles.

"Essentially it's a product somewhat like a big bass speaker," Howards said about the device, called a Whelen Howler.

"The feedback from the operators is that it's making a difference in their safety."

Tom Howards, light fleet manager with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, says the Howler system lowers the tone of a traditional siren. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The Howler, which is a black cannister roughly the size of a coffee can, sits behind the front bumper.

After a successful test run in 2016, the devices were installed in all six chief of paramedic operations vehicles when the fleet was replaced last year. 

The Howler augments the vehicle's siren, dramatically slowing down the frequency, Howards said.

The resulting low, growling sound can be quite jarring, said Michelle Bessas, a district chief of paramedic operations, who uses the siren several times per shift.

'Everybody takes notice'

After getting a call and activating the siren system in her SUV-style district chief vehicle, Bessas switches on the Howler by pushing on the horn.

She uses the new tool when approaching an intersection, where emergency vehicle drivers face the greatest risk.

Not only can they collide with others on the road, but there's a risk other vehicles will collide with each other if they're not doing what's required — pulling over to the right and stopping.

Bessas says the Howler's growl gets attention. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"When the Howler goes off, we notice that everybody takes notice — they're looking around and wondering what's going on," Bessas told a CBC reporter during a recent ride-along.

While district chiefs like Bessas don't respond to every call paramedics respond to, they go to all serious incidents and calls that involve children and help crews with advanced life support services as needed. 

Bessas said the Howler's unique sound and sensation — which can go double the distance a traditional siren sound travels — helps her get to those scenes quicker.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is literally shaking things up in its latest attempt to make sure drivers are aware of oncoming emergency vehicles. 0:24

"A delay in our response in certain situations can really make a difference in the outcome of a patient — it can mean the difference between life and death or a permanent disability or making a full recovery," Bessas said.

"We all want to go home safe at the end of the day, and we don't want to cause anybody else to have a collision or to get injured."

Un-distracting drivers

Ambulances in Corner Brook, N.L., were among the first emergency vehicles in Canada equipped with Howlers four years ago.

David Buckle, regional director of paramedicine and medical transport with Western Health, the regional health authority in Corner Brook, said the Howler gets the attention of drivers distracted by phones or loud music.

"We've developed our cars to be like our living room chesterfield — everything is very comfortable and you've got these really state-of-the-art sound systems onboard and the vehicles are soundproof," Buckle said.

The Howler can be felt up to 60 metres away. (CBC)

"So with this, that certainly assists us to break that barrier."

The Calgary Police Service also uses Howlers.

The WFPS is looking at installing Howlers — which cost around $1,500 each — on other first response vehicles (such as ambulances and fire trucks) in the future.

Winnipeg police said they have no plans to move to the Howler system, but they are looking at giving the device a trial run.

While Bessas said the new siren is a helpful tool in emergency workers' ongoing fight to make sure drivers know to get out of their way when their lights are flashing, she knows that could change as drivers get used to the new sound.

That's why she stresses drivers need to remember what to do when they see her and other emergency drivers in their rearview mirrors — pull over to the right and stop when it's safe to do so.

"It's in everybody's best interest."

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is literally shaking things up in its latest attempt to make sure drivers are aware of oncoming emergency vehicles. 1:40

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