Why Do Fire Stations Still Use Sirens?

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iStock

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.

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What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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