Dealing with a real life externality

 
I live about a half mile away from a nice volunteer fire department. They're great except for the fact that they blast a siren whenever there is an emergency reported. That's OK during the day, but they also do it in the middle of the night and it always wakes me up.

This is not a fire engine siren, but just a general notification siren. It is very loud. It goes on for a long time and wakes me up sufficiently that I have trouble falling back to sleep.

This situation is a negative externality -- a situation where someone is negatively affected by something they aren't involved in. The canonical example is air pollution from manufacturing. The pollution causes health effects to people in surrounding areas who probably aren't involved in buying or selling the manufactured goods.
A few months ago I hit my breaking point. I was woken up three times in one night, and I sent an email offering my help to improve their systems. I figured there must be a better way to notify people, e.g. text messaging, which has a number of benefits (larger range, can give contextual information, can send to on-call people, can have a subscriber model, etc.).

I got a nice reply from the fire chief including this reasoning for the current siren.

We currently have a group text messaging system for emergency and non-emergency notifications to our members, it works well but is imperfect like any technological solution.

The primary reason for the siren still being in use in 2012 is to notify drivers in the area of the station that there is some type of emergency going on and to be on the lookout for emergency apparatus entering the roadway. That being said, we don't have a lot of traffic in the middle of the night that would warrant it. It also does serve as the primary notification device for members who may performing property maintenance and cannot hear their personal paging devices going off over lawn mowers, other small engines, etc. Also, not an issue at night.


We have had an electrician come out to provide a quote to put a timer on the siren that will limit its hours of operation. The bottom line, its just about $500. We (The Company) concur that the siren is not needed in off-peak hours, but have much more important things to budget and pay for then this. We are willing to accept a donation in this amount to pay for the switch, and we would schedule to have the work done as soon as possible.

I read this and immediately paid the $500. I also kicked myself for not making this inquiry years prior.

They did promptly put a switch on the siren and now I am not bothered at night. Negative externality solved. I have no idea how many others were effected by it, but I suspect a lot. If it had been a lot more money I probably would have done some community outreach and taken donations.

I'm generally good about inquiring about things, but this one got away from me. I had asked through my neighborhood to tell the township, which they did, but nothing happened. If I had known it was a relatively small cost earlier, I obviously would have done it earlier.

I wonder how many other small negative externalities are out there waiting to be solved.

 

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