Sound the alarm - the war on silence has intensified


BACK IN the 1980s, it was difficult to live in city centre Dublin and not be driven demented by burglar alarms that rang for protracted periods, sometimes for an entire weekend.

Keyholders of commercial premises would lock up on a Friday evening and head for the peace of the suburbs, only for their alarms to start sounding an hour or two later because a passing double-decker bus had rattled the windows, or because two gambolling mice had nudged a monitored door.

There seemed to be no rules at all designed to protect the unfortunate residents of the city centre, who were condemned to trying to sleep with pillows pressed to their ears.

At least back then alarms tended to sound like speeded-up school bells rather than the more stress-inducing sirens that the companies that make these things have opted for in more recent years.

It is worth remembering that the whole point of the kind of sounds made by alarms is to do exactly what they say on the tin – cause alarm. Screeching sirens are designed to induce distress in exactly the same way a baby’s cry is set at a pitch (most) people cannot ignore.

These days the suburbs are as plagued by siren-type alarms as the city centre of Dublin was by bell-ringing alarms back in the bad old 1980s. The volume and pitch of these devices are such that they can be heard inside houses that are streets away from the house that, more often than not, is not being burgled.

Other than cursing them when they go off, as far as I am aware most neighbours ignore alarms when they go off. Burglars probably dislike them but I often wonder if they constitute much of a deterrent.

The law says that any house alarm introduced since August 2006 must not sound for more than 15 minutes. This is a welcome law but its effect is somewhat undermined by the fact that house alarms are now so prolific. A morning in suburbia during which a succession of alarms sound within hearing is as common, if not more common, than a morning when they leave you in peace.

Strong wind, passing vehicles, interference from the communications system used by taxis and a myriad other reasons can lie behind this unnecessary noise pollution.

When you throw in car alarms you can be easily led to the conclusion that someone, somewhere has launched a war on silence.

According to the Department of the Environment, under EU standards 95/56/EC, car alarms should sound for a minimum of 25 seconds and a maximum of 30 seconds. “The audible alarm signal may sound again only after the next interference with the vehicle.” That came as news to me when I saw it while preparing this column.

If someone, somewhere is directing a war on silence, they are doing a very good job.

For instance, who decided that washing machines, when they have finished their business, have to issue an extended series of high-pitched tweets to inform you they have come to the end of their cycle, when the fact that they have stopped their rumble and spin is perfectly obvious to everyone but the deaf?

And why do cafe managers let their staff put on loud techno pop to cheer themselves up while they rush around serving customers who were born in the 1950s and 1960s?

There are so many other possible examples: finding yourself in a modern hotel where your room hovers over a huge air-conditioning control centre that hums and burps all night long is a common experience.

To date most of residential Ireland has been spared from noisy air-conditioning systems, though I’m sure someone, somewhere, is drafting a fiendish plan.

The cacophony of electronic bleeps and infuriating whines that have invaded the modern world now follow us as far as the grave.

Recently I was in Glasnevin Cemetery for a burial. The lines of old granite headstones, the high stone wall, the avenues lined by cedars, oaks, yew and beech make for a very impressive and particular location. If you have to have death and funerals, then it is as fitting a place for a burial as any.

Depending, that is, on how close you are to a small car park that is inside the walls.

Motorists when leaving drive up to a barrier which automatically lifts. Up at the gate that goes on to the road there is another automatic barrier. Each time the barriers lift a warning signal sounds. It is the kind of noise that would be appropriate if you wanted to evacuate the Pentagon. A strange addition to what is designed to be a place of repose.

New legislation governing noise pollution, and how those being discomfited by it can raise the matter with the authorities, forms part of the programme for government.

A consultation paper issued by the Department of the Environment in 2008 raised the issue of banning noisy alarms in both commercial and residential premises and having only monitored systems. Noisy alarms were the main issue cited in submissions received. However it doesn’t seem a ban will be included in the promised new law, which is unfortunate.

Even without new laws a better effort by society generally could help defend from attack the phenomenon of silence, a public good that is, after all, free.

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