2018-03-01 / Front Page

Brace for horn’s return in next few weeks, fire chief says


“We would get rid of the horn in a perfect world. But this is a volunteer department; we don’t have firemen sitting around the station waiting for calls.” — Fire Chief Jim Bryer “We would get rid of the horn in a perfect world. But this is a volunteer department; we don’t have firemen sitting around the station waiting for calls.” — Fire Chief Jim Bryer Townspeople will experience a literal blast from the past this month.

Eighteen months after shovels broke ground at the fire station, firefighters are undertaking steps to bring the horn back to Narragansett Avenue. Fire Chief Jim Bryer expects the first blasts to be heard within two weeks.

“We’re not trying to tick people off. We’re doing it because we have to. In fire services, everything has to be redundant,” he said.

The horn, whose blast can be heard from Beavertail Lighthouse to Conanicut Point, has been alerting firefighters to emergencies for generations. However, it was decommissioned for safety reasons during construction of the $2.2 million expansion.

“We didn’t want to blow anybody off the roof,” Bryer said.

With last week’s completion of the roof-top tower, the board of fire wardens unanimously voted to rewire the horn for duty. While the shutdown was never supposed to be permanent, Bryer wants to brace the community for its deafening comeback.

“There are times when I’m walking out front and it scares the crap out of me,” he said. “We know it’s noisy, but that’s what it’s designed to do.”

During the horn’s hiatus, the fire department experienced occasional problems with its pagers, especially among volunteers in the north end. That’s because of the sketchy signal exacerbated by the government’s decision to cut the town’s bandwidth in half to indulge cellular companies.

“If we can’t reach firemen because we are having a cloudy day and reception is bad, the horn is a good backup,” said Bryer’s deputy, Howie Tighe.

“I live on Clinton Avenue and I’ve missed calls,” Bryer added.

Moreover, the department still uses a system with VHF frequency, opposed to the 800-megahertz band outfitted by emergency responders across the state, including the town’s police department and harbormaster. According to the chiefs, the reason is financial.

“That’s the direction we’re heading, but it costs a ton of money,” Bryer said.

For three consecutive years, the fire department has applied for federal grants to pay for the technology upgrade, but to no avail.

“We can’t show enough financial hardship,” Tighe said. “They tell us we can afford it.”

While the horn is a fixture, including the daily 6 p.m. testing, the fire department has scaled back its use since Bryer and Tighe took the helm in the mid-2000s. There is no more noon testing, and the horn only whistles when box alarms are pulled. It used to sound during rescue calls and non-emergencies, such as flooded cellars that needed to be pumped out. With emergency medical services and firefighters now under one roof, there is no need to use the horn to alert ambulance crews at Knowles Court.

Also, there only is one round of horn blasts during the evening to correspond with the box alarms. For example, the code for Conanicut Yacht Club is 354, which means the horn would blast three times, then pause, blow five times, pause again, and then blow four more times. That is so firefighters throughout town will know where the fire is located.

When this administration was hired, the policy was to blow three rounds, meaning the yacht club call would include 36 blasts of the horn at any hour. Now, there are two rounds of 12 blasts during the day and one round at night.

“We cut it way back,” Bryer said.

There are other perks to having the horn, according to Tighe. Because it’s operated similar to Morse code, there is no need for electricity, which means it is steadfast during power outages. Also, it reminds the community that firefighters will start to mobilize downtown.

“It lets people know that something is happening,” Tighe said. “When the horn blows, they know that firemen are going to be showing up at the station.”

Still, the primary reason simply is public safety.

“We would get rid of the horn in a perfect world,” Bryer said. “But this is a volunteer department; we don’t have firemen sitting around the station waiting for calls. If I knew the pagers worked 100 percent of the time, we could get rid of it. But until we can get the money to make them 100 percent reliable, the entire board feels more comfortable with the horn.”

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