Easton’s fire siren had gone off at 2 AM the night before, prompting me to call the fire house and inquire about its use. “If your house was on fire, wouldn’t you want to hear the siren?” I was asked. As someone new to small-town living on the Eastern Shore, the siren has been a shocking part of our daily downtown experience.
My family and I, however, got to go back to sleep after our late night rousing, while Easton Volunteer fire fighters were selflessly risking their lives to insure the safety of others. In fact, the Easton Volunteer Fire Department (EVFD) has been recognized as the 10th best Class 4 fire department in Maryland. The teams’ efforts in superior fire fighting have even resulted in lowered insurance rates for residents.
But, does the siren really enhance the EVFD’s performance? In my quest to learn about the siren’s purpose, I spoke with Clay Stamp, the Director of Talbot County Emergency Management Services. He described why the siren is still used, even in the face of more modern means of communication: “There are a number of people who still work outside, and the fire siren lets them know that they need to respond to a fire as a volunteer fire fighter. The other reason they use the siren is because it alerts the community that the firemen are going to be moving around. The volunteer firemen will be using their private cars to get to the station.”
Although the volunteers are equipped with pagers, sometimes the fire house needs to signal for more manpower. And pagers, others volunteers argue, aren’t always effective in rousing someone from a deep sleep. The ultimate decision to stay with the fire siren rests with the fire chief of Easton, Jaime McNeil. He was contacted several times for this story, but declined to comment.
Talbot County has chosen to use a Connect CTY system, which can alert 39,000 people in 18 minutes of emergency situations through residents’ land lines. “We’ve appealed to people to subscribe to put their cell phones into the system so we can alert them that way as well. That is our primary means for alerting the public,” Stamp explains.
As technology moves forward, the history of the siren may be part of what keeps it in active use. Sirens were first used in the United States by the Civil Defense in World War II, warning residents to turn off their lights. They then shifted to signal impending weather, natural disasters, and eventually, fire personnel.
For the fire fighters who heed its call, though, the siren may be a part of tradition that helps rally the volunteers. Tim Kearns, an engineer with the Oxford Volunteer Fire Department, explains it this way: “Every time I hear the siren, I hear the call. I hear the voices of the members who have answered before me. This helps me summon the courage to get on the truck to go to some unknown call, some unknown potential danger, to me, to my family, or to my community.”
For Kearns, the siren is still necessary. “The siren is answered by volunteers. If the county had full-time paid departments, it wouldn't be needed. The crews would already be at the stations, waiting.”
Some residents who live within close proximity to the warning signal are disgruntled by the noise. Downtown resident Martha Suss feels it is an "antiquated system," though she points out the volunteers are a "dynamic and altruistic bunch."
As a neighbor and I talked in his backyard on an unseasonably warm February day, the siren blared its horn. We both cringed, struggling to hear each other during the two-minute duration. “I respect and appreciate the volunteers, but the siren is a serious source of noise pollution. I have lived all over the country and have never experienced a siren that goes on for this long,” my neighbor complained.
Beyond physical discomfort, the frequent nature of the siren may cause residents to become desensitized to its sound. The siren goes off on average of two times per day, according to EVFD statistics. The debate has even inspired a number of YouTube videos with actual siren footage.
Several rural municipalities with volunteer fire departments around the country have given up their sirens when repairs proved costly or when residential communities near firehouses complained. Other towns, Oxford among them, have limited the siren to daytime use except in the case of large fire events that usually require more than one department.
In this community, the issue has not made it past backyard conversations and online grumblings. So, if my house was on fire, would I want to hear the siren? I would be grateful that the brave and dedicated volunteer firefighters were on their way, regardless of how they got the message.
*With contributions from Jill O'Hanlon and Amanda Priestley.
How do you feel about Easton's fire siren? Let us know in the comments section below.