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With New Device, Police Shake, Rattle and Roll
D.C.'s High-Tech 'Rumbler' Siren Emits a Low-Frequency Vibe You Can Feel

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

With his lights and sirens blaring, D.C. police officer Lou Schneider raced to an emergency call, past dozens of startled onlookers standing on the crowded streets of the city's Chinatown area.

The ground beneath Schneider's patrol car literally was quivering.

"You know when this is coming up behind you," said Schneider, one of a few dozen D.C. officers who are using the department's newest sirens -- the ones that people can feel as well as hear.

"It vibrates everything," he said.

Meet the Rumbler.

The high-tech blaster is being used along with the traditional siren. It is aimed at grabbing people's attention and getting them to make room for officers responding to emergencies, helping police navigate through traffic faster and safer. People can feel it from about 200 feet away.

D.C. police have 49 cars equipped with the Rumblers, spread across the city. The Rumbler is part of a lights-and-sirens package the department is phasing in over several years as it gets new cars and retires old ones. In about four years, all of the department's 767 marked patrol cars likely will have them.

With a pair of high-output woofers and an amplifier, the Rumbler is not louder than a regular siren. It gets its message across with low-frequency sound waves that shake everything, including rear-view mirrors.

The Rumbler is meant to be used judiciously, in situations where motorists should pull over to make way for the police. It is timed to turn off automatically after 10 seconds. Still, police officials said, some people might be startled when they first experience it. And it remains to be seen if the public will view all that shaking as a helpful warning or just a nuisance.

"Once they see what it's attached to, they'll be all right," Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said. "They'll get used it."

The city is buying the Rumblers at the behest of Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who said she wanted officers to have the newest technology, especially if it improves safety. She said officers at times have had trouble getting traffic to clear.

"People can't say they didn't hear the siren, because with these, they feel it," Lanier said.

Since Lanier took over the department in January, she has upgraded technology by giving officials personal digital assistants, putting laptop computers in patrol cars and automating some police reports. She also is revamping the department's internal record-keeping computer system, which has been ineffective at keeping accurate crime statistics.

Lanier added an aside about the Rumbler: "Cops love new toys."

The sirens, which cost about $350 a car, were given a tryout period in the District starting in July.

The technology, developed by Illinois-based Federal Signal Corp., is being used or tested in handful of cities, including Alexandria and New York. Other customers include police in Plymouth Township and Reading in Pennsylvania and Tequesta and Plantation in Florida, said Tom Morgan, vice president for sales and marketing for Federal Systems' Mobile Systems Group.

Morgan said the Rumbler was developed after police departments complained that, increasingly, motorists weren't responding to traditional lights and sirens.

"The basic idea is we become more insulated in our vehicles with stereos, iPods and telephones," Morgan said. "We thought it would be helpful if there was something else along with the traditional siren that would reach a different level of awareness."

In the District, people are certainly taking notice. Being near it is like standing next to a car that is blaring bass-heavy music.

"I heard it, but I didn't know what it was," said Sandra Seegars, a neighborhood activist who recently got the full Rumbler experience on Alabama Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. "It makes you pay attention, like, 'What's wrong with that car?' "

Police said the Rumbler has been working well and believe that it will be helpful for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. "Vibrating sirens is an interesting idea, and it could benefit all drivers, not just deaf drivers," agreed Erin Casler, a spokeswoman for Gallaudet University.

As part of the equipment upgrade, Lanier is slowly getting rid of the constantly flashing red and blue lights used by police cruisers when they patrol the streets, ending a practice her predecessor, Charles H. Ramsey, initiated in 2003 to make police cars more visible. Those lights drew complaints from some motorists who mistakenly thought they were being pulled over or that there was trouble ahead.

Lights on the new cars have a "steady blue burn," or a blue light that does not flash but adds visibility, said Groomes, the assistant chief in charge of patrols. "It increases visibility without distracting the public."

Each light bar on the new cars costs $1,800.

Both the blue lights and the Rumbler appeal to police for two reasons, she said: They quickly get the attention of the public, and, yes, they are the latest gadget.

"It's something they can show off," Groomes said.

Staff writer Peter Perl contributed to this report.

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