Police Lights, Sirens – What purpose do they serve?

Post by: Cst. Candace Mitchell


One of the most common complaints that we hear relates to our use of lights and sirens. And I will confess that, yes, I have used them to get to a coffee shop. Why? A man had collapsed. My partner and I were able to  offer assistance until he could be taken to hospital.

Many are quick to make jokes about Police flipping on lights and sirens to get through traffic when it suits them. The reality is that using those blaring sirens and flashing lights is not an advertisement that we’re going to a call; their use is to navigate traffic safely and efficiently. Often it’s emergencies that garner this reaction. Here are a few examples:

  • Medical emergencies. Officers are also trained in CPR / First Aid and can provide assistance until medical personnel arrive.
  • Crimes in progress (B&Es, assaults, property damage, alarms)

There are also a number of situations where using that equipment may only aggregate the situation:

  • Our highly trained Communications staff answers calls and dispatches us based on priority. They stay on the line with complainant/victim, continually receiving information. Sometimes, when initial information tells us lights and sirens are necessary, additional information can change the response.
  • Someone is breaking into a vehicle, and unbeknownst to them, I’m already on my way but I don’t want them to know that. My goal is to stop the act from proceeding and to also catch the person responsible.

With or without lights and sirens, we’re still responsible for driving in a reasonable and safe manner. Being reasonable means slowing at intersections before proceeding, travelling at safe speeds and arriving where we are needed. If we don’t do this, we have consequences as well. But it does make our jobs difficult. We have to carefully navigate through streets congested with vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. We also have to deal with road users who either aren’t paying attention or become frozen at the sight of an emergency vehicle.

The ability to activate lights and sirens is a luxury to our job but it’s an enormous responsibility. There are provisions for us to disobey the TSA but, trust me, if we don’t have to, we would rather not. Same as you all, we’re trying to get home to our families at the end of the day.

The biggest way you can help when you see an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens on? Pull to the right and stop as soon as you safely can.

If you observe a Police vehicle that you feel is being driven in an unsafe manner, you make file a complaint with our Professional Standards Unit.

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9 Responses to Police Lights, Sirens – What purpose do they serve?

  1. clinton says:

    Police need to use their sirens more when responding to an Incident… I nearly tboned a cop with only their lights on due to a blind intersection and I had a green light. If it was winter and I didn’t see the lights reflecting in the glass of a building I’m sure I would have tboned them. I stopped about a foot away from the passenger door with a scared looking officer looking at me. If they are responding turn your sirens on and keep them on not just intersections.

  2. Constance May says:

    I must confess frustration with your officers using sirens and flashing lights at 3 or 4 a.m. on a street that hasn’t a single vehicle in the way, waking up the neighborhood, and for what reason? It happens regularly where I live and it’s very frustrating.

  3. leena baig says:

    Hi, i have moved from vancouver to saskatoon……i have seen that no one i n saskatoon stops on the right side of the road for emergency vehicles…..Every time i stop to give way….i get honked at or yelled at or shown the finger or just angry glares and i started to assume that the rules may be different in sk. Reading the last few lines in this article makes me think otherwise. ….what are the rules for passing er vehicles on same or opposite sides of the road??

    • Great question, Leena! You’re correct though – motorists are required to safely pull to the right and stop, to let an emergency vehicle pass. It’s an issue that we continually see as problematic.

  4. John Smith says:

    I thought this article did a really good job explaining why police lights and sirens are sometimes used and sometimes not used!

    I think it’s funny that the first two comments were basically: “More siren!” and “Less siren!”. I think a lot of time members of the public are largely influenced by their own personal experiences, and honestly, it’s natural for people to only remember the bad experiences and not even remember or notice all the time when a cruiser speeding to an emergency drove so perfectly and safely that traffic wasn’t even really affected.

    Also, I think it’s good to realize that cops, even with the high standards of ethics and training, are just people and some are going to be more by the book and others maybe a little less. I personally, have seen a cruiser run a red light and then immediately pull into a Tim Horton’s drive through. I absolutely didn’t report them because in this case they do anything dangerous at all; They stop at the red light and it just wasn’t changing, it was like 5am and there was no traffic around. The fact is I would possibly have done the same, but I was still a little emotionally irked. I wasn’t mad at the cop, it was the perceived inequity that bugged me, because if I’m stuck at a broken red light I don’t have to just worry about being safe I also have to worry about a cop possibly issuing a traffic ticket. There’s a double standard driving 65 in a 60 zone often isn’t dangerous and commonly happens with both police and civilian drivers, usually no one gets tickets, but sometimes the civilian driver do get a ticket. An on duty police officer would never be punished for driving 65 in a 60 zone if it was safe to do so (but even if it was unnecessary).

    By and far, in my experience, most law enforcement officials are really great public servants who do a really good job! I have also read about the Stanford prison experiments, so I think it might just be natural that those with unchecked authority might be most tempted to abuse their authority.

    I did see on the internet that in the USA, a police officer arrested a firefighter because he parked his fire truck to protect the emergency personnel responding to an accident scene and the police officer wanted him to move it but he refused. I think the firefighter was awarded $18000 by a jury in the end but I’m not sure who had to pay, I think might have been the tax payers.

  5. James Mortensen says:

    What does each siren mean?

  6. Gregg Woolman says:

    I have noticed dozens of times abbotsford police useing their lights to get thru a red light causing people to stop quickly, and then shutting them off as soon as they are thru the intesection
    Is this allowed as it does put public at risk
    Thanks Gregg

    • Hi Gregg, It’s impossible for us to answer that given it’s a different Police Service in a different province. From the perspective of the SPS, however, our members are aware of the optics of doing this and would not do this unless on their way to a call. ^kf

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