Firefighters on Main Street in downtown Bangor, March 23, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Bangor’s fire chief discussed the purpose of sirens on the city’s emergency vehicles during a city council committee meeting on Monday but said there’s likely little the department can do to muffle the volume.

Chief Thomas Higgins said the Bangor Fire Department has looked at alternative routes that fire trucks and ambulances from Central Station could take to avoid going down Main Street where the buildings echo and amplify the sirens.

However, other routes, such as Washington or Hancock streets, that would take the vehicles toward Broadway and the tree streets would entail tight corners, narrow roads and steep hills the department’s large ladder and tanker trucks can’t maneuver, Higgins said.

“If we go up Hancock Street, there’s such an incline on that hill that our ladder truck will be dragging its tailboard on the road,” Higgins said. “Truthfully, there’s not a lot of [route] variation to be had.”

The Bangor City Council’s Government Operations Committee invited Higgins to discuss the sirens Monday night after city leaders received several emails on the subject, Councilor Dan Tremble, Government Operations Committee chairperson, said.

Those emails arrived in the wake of a Bangor Daily News story that addressed why emergency vehicle sirens can sound particularly loud in downtown Bangor.

The July 31 story explained that Bangor’s emergency sirens bounce off the buildings that line both sides of Main Street, which makes a standard siren seem louder. The relative lack of background noise on Bangor’s streets can make sudden, loud noises like sirens especially jarring and noticeable.

Bangor resident Dominick Rizzo said he fully supports the city’s fire department and believes it’s an essential service, but he questioned whether the additional air horn trucks use is necessary when traveling through downtown.

“When you’re going down Main Street and do that additional cannon sound, I can feel the wiring of my body panic. This is a little dramatic, but it’s semi-traumatic and almost brings me to tears,” Rizzo said. “I support what you do, and we need you desperately, but there has to be a compromise in using the louder horn.”

Lights and sirens help fire trucks and ambulances navigate busy intersections safely and reduce response times, Higgins said, but first responders generally use good judgment on when and where it’s appropriate to use them.

“When we’re going through downtown, it’s because someone has a fire or EMS need, and part of our core mission is to get there as quickly as we can so we can provide the best service to people,” Higgins said.

The sirens are required to comply with a state law that gives emergency vehicles the right of way when using lights and sirens, as well as the ability to pass through red lights and surpass the speed limit.

That law also requires drivers to move to the side of the road and stop, allowing an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on to pass safely, but not everyone seems to abide by that law, Councilor Susan Hawes said.

When a driver isn’t yielding to emergency vehicles, fire trucks or ambulances may need to use additional and louder sirens and horns to get the driver’s attention or express the urgency of the situation.

“I think sometimes [firefighters] use that horn to let people know, ‘We’re behind you and we need to get past you,’” Hawes said.

While rerouting emergency vehicles around downtown would be easier on the ears of those who live, work or frequent the area, councilors agreed that should not happen in exchange for slower response times.

“The primary mission has to be to get there as quickly as you can to put out a fire or respond to a person whose life is in danger,” Councilor Cara Pelletier said. “Speed is important, and exercising good judgment about where to use the horns makes a lot of sense.”

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...