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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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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