Today’s question is an interesting one about siren use by the NSW RFS. Today’s correspondent is
… a person with an extreme startle response, akin to people afflicted with PTSD, i experience physical distress when sirens are sounded near to me when i am a pedestrian. Indeed, on some occasions, the sirens start when they are right next to me.
It is my understanding sirens are for the purpose of warning road users / operators and are to be activated for that purpose when responding to emergencies. Similarly, they are to be used for the purpose of obtaining a right of way when traffic is heavy or at intersections when responding to an emergency.
Consequently, I don’t believe the general advice by the RFS to its volunteers that they must use sirens when they leave their station is appropriate.
Is there a legal requirement I am missing?
Do I have a claim against the RFS, and/ or its drivers, if my health is harmed (say I have a heart attack) and if there is no genuine need to sound a siren?
I have seen instances where the sirens have been sounded when there is no traffic, to respond to suggestions / gestures by children, on celebratory / seasonal occasions.
I will tolerate sirens when they are necessary….but i detest them when they are not necessary.
The need for sirens is well documented elsewhere on this blog. To obtain the benefit of r 306 of the Australian Road Rules (granting an exemption from the other rules in the Australian Road Rules) an emergency vehicle must be ‘displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm’. Equally drivers are obliged to give way to, and make way for, an emergency vehicle that is ‘is displaying a flashing blue or red light (whether or not it is also displaying other lights) or sounding an alarm’ (rr 78 and 79). An emergency vehicle is only an emergency vehicle when it is being used in the course of duties in relation to an emergency; a fire appliance in a street parade, or when there is no emergency, is not an ‘emergency vehicle’ even if the lights and siren are activated (see Court of Appeal dismisses appeal by RFS tanker driver involved in fatal collision (October 13, 2017)).
Two things follow, first my correspondent is correct, ‘sirens are for the purpose of warning road users / operators … when responding to emergencies. Similarly, they are to be used for the purpose of obtaining a right of way … when responding to an emergency’. Second the legal effect can be obtained by the use of red/blue warning lights alone. A siren is sufficient, but not necessary for the operation of rr 78, 79 and 306. But the use of the siren is for more than just those legal rules. The siren is a more effective way, than lights alone, of warning other road users of the presence of the emergency vehicle and thereby reducing the risk of collision. There is debate about whether the use of the siren in the early hours, or when there is no traffic is warranted. Some would (and have argued here) that all response driving is too dangerous and brings too little benefit to be justified at all. They are all reasonable arguments, but the legal position is that a driver may activate all the warning devices at any time and many would argue that they should, not only to enjoy the best legal protection but to actually reduce the risk of a collision.
The law is actually silent on when a siren may or should be used. A fire appliance in a street parade may get no legal benefit from the use of the siren (ie because it is not an emergency, rr 78, 79 and 306 won’t apply) but that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to activate the siren. I have argued in earlier posts that I think drivers should not activate their warning lights or siren if they are not seeking the benefit of rr 78, 79 and 306, nor should people who are not classed as ‘emergency workers’ seek to fit red/blue lights as a request for courtesy, as that would just lead to confusion. Drivers expect a vehicle that is fitted with, and has activated its warning devices, to proceed when they give way etc. But there is a difference between a street parade when there is both a PR benefit (and as my correspondent shows, a PR harm) in activating the siren.
As for ‘no traffic’ as noted above that’s a debatable point but the ultimate call is with the driver. A pedestrian may think there is no traffic, but they have a different perspective to the driver who may see traffic the pedestrian cannot. Equally the driver will know that traffic can appear from driveways and side roads that no-one can see until the last moment, so the use of the siren is warranted. It is really the driver’s call.
The critical, and may I suggest erroneous issue, with my correspondent’s question is ‘Consequently, I don’t believe the general advice by the RFS to its volunteers that they must use sirens when they leave their station is appropriate.’ The RFS does not advise its volunteers to use the siren whenever they leave the station. Only when they leave their station when responding to an emergency. And at that point one could not say that is erroneous even if you thought they did not need when there is ‘no traffic’ as they could only rationally form the view that there is no traffic once they are out of the station and on the road.
Could there be ‘a claim against the RFS, and/ or its drivers, if my health is harmed (say I have a heart attack) and if there is no genuine need to sound a siren?’ Not a chance. We live in a noisy world and sirens are part of the noise of modern society. They are there for a reason and regulators have determined that they are a reasonable response to need. Dog owners too may claim distress as their dogs wail in response to sirens and neighbours in turn complain about the dogs.
The RFS have to act reasonably in all the circumstances. They would have to be aware of a potential risk and their response to the risk has to be reasonable in all the circumstances including taking into account their conflicting duties. Here that would include their duty to other road users, the fact that sirens are fitted to emergency vehicles to warn other road users (including pedestrians) of the presence of the emergency vehicle, the need to comply with the Road Rules and their duty to attend to the emergency with all due haste. The question of whether there was a ‘genuine’ need to sound the siren would depend on so many factors including what are in standard operating procedures and what the call was (even if it turned out to be a false alarm).
A resident who lived near a fire station may have a claim in nuisance if he or she could prove that the RFS used the siren literally every time the vehicle moved out of the shed, whether responding to an emergency or going to buy fuel. But I doubt anyone could establish that this is what happens. If, however, a brigade does activate the siren every time the wheels turn, that would be a matter to take up with the RFS.
The problem with a statement such as ‘I will tolerate sirens when they are necessary….’ is that my correspondent is not in a position to judge whether (street parades excepted) the use of a siren in any given case is ‘necessary’ as they are not in a position to know what (if any) emergency the driver is proceeding to or what the view from the cabin is. What we do know is that if the driver is involved in a collision and there was no emergency, the use of the siren/lights won’t help (see again see Court of Appeal dismisses appeal by RFS tanker driver involved in fatal collision (October 13, 2017)).
The RFS does not advise its ‘volunteers that they must use sirens when[ever] they leave their station’. If they did that would not be appropriate and a neighbour may well have grounds for an action in nuisance. If the advice is ‘volunteers … must use sirens when they leave their station in. response to an emergency call’ then that is appropriate, even if a pedestrian is upset by the sound. We live in a noisy world and the siren is for the benefit of all road users. There cannot be a duty to an unidentified class of road users who may be adversely affected by the use of the siren when the regulators have already determined that a siren is an appropriate warning tool.
If a person really think sirens are being regularly used when it is inappropriate, ie when there is no call to an emergency then the remedy would be to raise the matter with the RFS or, in an extreme case with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (NSW) Part 5.5 Noise Pollution. I cannot see any chance that a claim ‘if my health is harmed’ could succeed.
For a related post, see ‘Ambulance & Fireys Misuse of Emergency Sirens’ (February 14, 2020)