Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I lived next to railroad tracks and a fire station. Coal-carrying trains, which rumbled through town at all hours of the day and night, could be tolerated. But occasionally I’d be startled awake by the deafening wail of a fire siren.
With the advent of modern technology and advanced emergency notification systems, are sirens still necessary? It isn't just me who wondered this, either; communities across the country have been raising the same question at their local meetings, with some addressing the issue as early as the 1990s. As it turns out, sirens technically aren’t necessary, and whether or not they’re used at all is a local decision, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Although no law mandates their use, many departments have fought to keep them in place, despite complaints from annoyed residents. Chris Hash, of the Easton Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland, wrote in a blog post that sirens are needed because other communication devices, like pagers and cell phones, are not infallible.
“Batteries die, pagers and cell phones are not on the person, and text messaging and smartphone apps like Active 911 are often delayed, with some calls not coming through at all,” Hash wrote. “The National Fire Protection Association recommends that there are at least two reliable means to alert firefighters [of an emergency].”
Plus, there’s no missing or mistaking a fire siren. "When you're out working in the yard on a lawn mower, you can't hear your pager, but you can hear that siren,” George McBride, a member of the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department in Mechanicville, New York—where a debate arose over whether to replace a siren that had been disconnected—told the Times Union in 2014.
In addition to notifying firefighters of an emergency, the siren is also used to let local residents know they should remain alert. Some advocates of the fire siren argue that it lets drivers and pedestrians know they should stay off the roads, and residents with sprinklers are reminded to turn them off to conserve water.
One fire department in Mitchell, Ontario, hadn’t used its fire siren in nearly a decade, but after a firefighter nearly struck a pedestrian while driving to the fire hall, the town decided to start using it again earlier this year. Another department in Calistoga, California, considered purchasing a siren in the aftermath of a deadly wildfire, even though they had gotten rid of it years before in response to noise complaints.
More have joined suit. Duncan Scott, a sales manager at Federal Signal, told the Napa Valley Register in April that departments from all over California have placed orders for sirens after a number of wildfires swept through the state.
Other communities have struck a balance by keeping their sirens, but limiting their usage during hours when most people are sleeping. Of course, in some small towns, sirens still sound daily at noon or sundown—a holdover from a time when sirens were used to let residents know when it was time for lunch or for their children to come inside. Some communities keep this going for the sake of tradition.
Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at email@example.com.