2009-08-13 / Front Page

Fire horn sounds again – to dismay of some neighbors

Firefighters say they need the annoying alarm
By Dara Chadwick

The fire horn is back after being silenced for several weeks while a defective valve was repaired. Photo by Jeff McDonough The fire horn is back after being silenced for several weeks while a defective valve was repaired. Photo by Jeff McDonough If you have ever been downtown when the fire horn sounds, you know full well what the heartpounding aftermath of being close to its ear-splitting signal feels like.

“It’s just too fierce,” said Scott Wynn, a resident who lives on Clinton Avenue. “That thing scares the heart out of you.”

Fierce, yes…but also necessary, according to Howie Tighe, a deputy chief of the Jamestown Fire Department.

The horn “lets firefighters know there’s a fire, but it also lets the public know there’s a problem,” he said.

The subject of the fire horn and its volume – one that is sometimes hotly debated in Jamestown – resurfaced recently after some island residents noticed an eerie, peaceful sound a few weeks back: Silence.

An air valve in the horn broke, leaving it inoperable for several weeks while a replacement part was ordered, according to Tighe. The replacement part, which cost $200, was defective and had to be ordered again, he added.

The ensuing silence has once again stirred debate about the purpose of the fire horn. Is it simply a bit of nostalgia? Does the town really still need it?

Yes, Deputy Chief Tighe said.

Opponents of the horn, including Victor Bell, whose business, Enviro-Pac, is located diagonally across the street from the fire station on Narragansett Avenue, say that the fire horn is no longer necessary in an age of cellular phones and pagers.

“I actually think it’s not necessary at all,” Bell said. “Everyone has beepers.”

While it is true that Jamestown firefighters are now equipped with pagers, Tighe said the horn is still “an important and integral part of the public safety system.”

The fire horn runs on air and the fire alarm system set up across the island uses cable, he said.

“When we lose power, pagers don’t work,” Tighe said. “The paging system is electronic. There’s no way to page people if the power goes out.”

Not having the horn, Tighe said, could be a dangerous situation should the island lose power during a thunderstorm or hurricane.

Connie Slick, who lives across from the fire station on Narragansett Avenue, said her biggest concern about the horn is its sheer volume.

“I see people clutching their chests and covering their ears,” she said. “I’ve seen roofers doing work on the building across the street startle. It’s way too loud for people.”

There is no denying that the horn is exceedingly loud. But Tighe said the volume simply isn’t adjustable.

“It’s blown at the same level forever,” he said. “There’s not a valve or button we can push to lower the sound level.”

Weather also affects how loud the horn seems, Tighe said, adding that some days he can hear it from his home on the north end, while on other days, he cannot.

But while some Jamestowners cannot hear the horn from their homes, Bell said his clients can hear it – all the way in China.

“When we’re on the phone to China, they think we’re having an emergency,” he said.

Bell said the horn’s blasts make it difficult for his environmentally sensitive company to open its windows.

“The horn disturbs business,” Bell said. “We try to close the door and wait until it’s over.”

While the fire horn is a necessary part of public safety in Jamestown, Tighe said residents can expect some relief soon. In mid to late- September, new equipment will be installed that will change the number of blasts the horn blows. It will no longer blow the box number, he said; instead, the horn will blow 16 blasts when there is an emergency between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

“It will let people who can’t hear their pagers know that there’s a problem,” Tighe said, adding that those people will then know to check their pagers. “Then, the dispatcher will come over the pager and say where the fire is.”

At night, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., Tighe added, the horn will blow just eight blasts in an emergency.

That in itself is a big change, according to Tighe. In the past – depending

on the box number – you could hear up to 52 blasts of the horn.

As for eliminating the horn entirely, Tighe said that decision is about more than weather and power outage considerations.

“We’ve looked at the cost of text messaging and cell phones,” he said. “It’s cost prohibitive. We’re one of the only towns left to have an all-volunteer fire department and we’ve got 100 volunteers. You can’t expect people to bear the cost of text messaging.”

As it is, the new equipment to be installed in September will cost the town $36,000.

“That’s just to be able to cut down on the blasts,” Tighe said.

Although some in-town residents said they don’t love the fire horn, they remain grateful to the fire department for its efforts.

“It has nothing to do with my gratitude and appreciation of what they do for us,” Slick said.

Town Council President Julio DiGiando said he wasn’t hearing much about the fire horn from residents, but said it is clear that the fire department feels it needs the horn.

“It would be nice if there was a way we could maintain the level of public safety, but didn’t have to hear it,” DiGiando said. “It’s nice when there’s peace and quiet.”

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