Police siren lights

The Madison police and fire departments use emergency lights and sirens when responding to emergency calls some -- but not all -- of the time. 

Q: Is there a protocol for when police and fire departments use sirens on their vehicles?

A: The Madison police and fire departments use lights and sirens when responding to calls or when pursuing speeding cars or suspects some — but not all — of the time.

For the police department, flashing lights and sirens are used when they could reduce the seriousness of a situation when responding to an emergency with a high chance of death, serious injury or property loss, according to the department’s Standard Operating Procedure. They also are used when officers attempt to stop speeding motorists.

Officers also must use their red and blue emergency lights and siren when not obeying traffic rules, such as going through a red light or speeding when responding to a call.

They also must use emergency lights when stopped or parked in places where doing so is ordinarily not allowed.

Madison police don’t have to use lights and sirens in situations where using them could endanger the safety of a victim or other person, alert a suspect or allow them to flee or destroy evidence, among other possibilities, according to department policy.

For Madison firefighters, lights and sirens are used to let traffic know they’re coming at or behind them, said Division Chief Scott Bavery.

“Lights are typically used as a means for oncoming traffic to see the emergency vehicle,” he said. “Sirens are designed for approaching from behind.”

For medical situations, he said the department decides when to use lights and sirens based on the needs of the patient or victim. Trauma victims who require surgery right away may need to get to a hospital fast compared to a patient with a heart condition, when a calm, stress-free ride could be more beneficial.

“The level of call will also determine if all responding vehicles will use their lights and siren,” Bavery said.

State law also specifies what motorists must do when they encounter a police or fire department emergency vehicle with its lights or sirens on.

Moving over or slowing down when passing an emergency vehicle, moving to the right of the road when being passed, and pulling over when a police car is attempting to stop you are all required under state law.

— Chris Aadland

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Send questions to: justaskus@madison.com; Just Ask Us, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI 53708.

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