‘Tacky Buzzer’ Stirs Emotions in Sewickley

Station 258 with Horn

Sewickley Municipal Building and Fire Station, Thorn and Chestnut Streets. – The fire horn on the building is circled in red. Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

After moving to Sewickley at age 11, one of my favorite stops while exploring on foot and bicycle was the Police Desk in the municipal building. Desk Sergeant McCandless presided over the various technical systems that allowed him to answer phone calls, communicate with officers by radio, monitor prisoners in holding cells, obtain information from state computer databases, and alert the fire department to incidents requiring their attention.

That notification included the sounding of the extremely loud and incredibly close fire horn atop the building.

A few years later, as an unofficial summer intern at the Sewickley Herald, I heard then-Editor Betty G.Y. Shields, who was also instrumental in planning Sewickley’s celebration of the 1976 bicentennial, call the horn the “tacky buzzer“, after a similarly sounding device featured on TV’s The Hollywood Squares.

The bicentennial celebration called for the ringing of church and other bells at 2 P.M. on July 4th. B.G. Shields said she would have some choice words for someone “if they set that thing off too”. One blast each day at noon was also part of the routine back then.

In the early 90’s, as a part-time dispatcher for Sewickley Borough, I got to push the magic button that would start the cycle of loud blasts, along with paging firefighters by radio. Not long afterward the horn blasts were reduced in number, but if you’re within a few blocks of the fire station it’s still enough to elevate you from the insoles of your shoes.

As the technology of notification has improved, and wireless connectivity within our society approaches ubiquity, increasing numbers of citizens are questioning the continued operation of Sewickley’s fire horn.

Longtime resident Matt Chapman started an online petition to get the borough and fire department to stop using the horn. This effort first appeared among comments to a February post on Sewickley Patch, but it appears the petition itself has only been online since mid-May. The campaign has gained sufficient traction in that time frame to warrant front page coverage in the June 26 Herald. 

Per updates on his petition site at Change.org, Mr. Chapman has been diligent in speaking before council and contacting several borough officials, including those at the Cochran Hose Company, whom both council and borough administration state is in charge of the horn and its operation. I do wonder who pays for the electricity to power the thing, however.

The latest update from Mr. Chapman summarizes the responses he has received from borough officials, and the reasons he has been given for the horn’s continued use. Some borough officials, such as Mayor Brian Jeffe, appear sympathetic to the effort. Borough Manager Kevin Flannery and Fire Chief Jeff Neff appear to be reserving judgment, while committing to a research period of 60 days.

I hope that this period brings a sincere body of information to the table, in part because the rhetoric from Mr. Chapman seems to be that of trying to reach some sort of compromise – this ranges from getting the horn shut down just at night to exploring a funding mechanism to help firefighters obtain better communications equipment.

Mr. Chapman’s complaint is almost conciliatory and resolute at the same time – trying to strike a balance between protecting the community and protecting his children.  I can’t speak to what I don’t know, however.

Here’s what I know:

Internet-based applications and commercial wireless messaging can keep firefighters and other emergency responders informed of requests for their services, but it’s not something that can be relied upon as a stand-alone method.

These systems are dependent upon complex connectivity, involving multiple internet service providers, telecommunication companies, and wireless networks. One server failure, cable cut, or power outage in any number of locations can mean that the message doesn’t get to where it needs to go.

This is why most emergency personnel carry radio pagers, augmented by sirens (also set off by radio) that alert personnel and the general public when emergencies occur. These radio-based systems are owned and operated by public safety agencies, and are reinforced by redundant transmitters and emergency power systems.

There are still emergency sirens in our area that serve multiple purposes to their respective communities. Edgeworth may no longer have its own fire department, but the siren still goes off every evening when curfew time approaches.

In Beaver County, there is a network of sirens that serve both local fire departments as well as the evacuation warning system for the Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear facility at Shippingport. This network of sirens covers a radius of 10 air miles around the plant -this extends to as far as South Heights, which is not so far away at all.

I spoke with one fire official in Leetsdale, where there is still an operating siren located along Route 65 near Ferry Street. He stated that there was once a second siren, located atop the former municipal building and fire station on Broad Street, which would generate complaints from nearby residents. This siren was taken out of service when the new municipal building was opened in 2007.

To his knowledge there have been no complaints since, and from my vantage point the Leetsdale Fire Department continues to be a dynamic, responsive organization, reflective of the community that supports it.

In most communities with volunteer emergency services, there is a routine to the mobilization of the townsfolk to an emergency. This system has an almost theatrical quality to it – the siren is the town crier, the pager the information source. For those with a loved one in the mix, or those with a personal or professional curiosity, the police scanner is the link to the pulse of one of the most essential services that a government can provide.

The local communities that depend upon volunteers for fire service have an excellent group of resources serving them. The response to Wednesday’s train derailment is indicative of the level of commitment to training and effective coordination among our area’s response agencies.

Public Safety is, by its nature, a reactive profession. Those who assume the mantle of responder attempt to prepare for all manner of emergencies through training, planning, and exercising those skills and plans regularly. Part of these challenges include leveraging and adapting to changes in technology that can alter and/or complement those skill sets and response plans.

Public safety agencies in most of the Quaker Valley area recently transitioned to new radio frequencies, which means new radio equipment and new capabilities that will impact existing processes. Firefighters must adapt to these and other changes when operating in simple or complex response environments.

I have difficulty with the notion that these dedicated individuals would be unable to adapt to a different type of siren.

A scan of news stories related to this topic reveals that community conflicts about sirens can become more contentious than anyone would like. Last year in New Jersey, at least two sirens were moved in response to litigation.

In 2009, a Westmoreland County township threatened to remove the dispatch authorization for a fire department unless they changed the timing of their siren, which was described as “set at 92 decibels for 14 cycles at 15 seconds each”. That’s 3 minutes and 30 seconds of continuous siren. This department still shows as being in business, so I guess the siren got changed.

Sometimes Mother Nature intervenes, as is the case this past May in another New Jersey town, where endangered birds built a nest inside the siren. I wonder if any of those Crescent Township bald eagles are looking for a new home…Just kidding.

When the Herald posted their story from last week on their Facebook page, some of the numerous commenters vilified Mr. Chapman for even suggesting some type of change – something that I can only attribute to our growing societal inability to disagree in a civil manner. One comment tried to over-simplify – “Only in Sewickley”.

I’m afraid that’s not the case, but it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if Village Green Partners got a comment from someone stating that the most memorable part of their Sewickley shopping experience was getting blasted out of their new shoes. I’m sure that their mission of making Sewickley “a vibrant regional destination” does not extend to vibrating visitors’ dental work.

As someone who has pushed the button to set off the ‘tacky buzzer’ as part of a lengthy career in public safety, I can see the reasoning on both sides. Some type of public, audible alert is still necessary, if for no other reason than to assure that no isolated single point of failure prevents firefighters from being quickly notified of an emergency.

However, the ‘buzzer’ has been too sudden, and too loud, for too long. Some type of adjustment, whether in the type of noise pattern, timing, and/or volume level, would be an appropriate compromise in changing times.

Considering the civil tone and growing support behind Mr. Chapman’s efforts, I can’t imagine how competent, responsibly operated organizations such as Cochran Hose and Sewickley Borough can refuse to consider changes.

Enjoy your Independence Day weekend.

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4 Responses to ‘Tacky Buzzer’ Stirs Emotions in Sewickley

  1. Geoff says:

    Good article, John. Lots of helpful background, with links, to the larger issue of keeping our safety forces effective and our communities habitable. You put some hours into this post, and some good thought. I like the tone, and the information, and your proposed resolution. Thanks for your effort. Hadn’t seen your blog before…

  2. JunkChuck says:

    Our siren in Indiana, PA broke several years ago and, without much fanfare or any public comment, left that way. The decision was more economic than aesthetic, as I understand it. As a native who moved away and returned I miss it, but that’s mostly a sentimental remembrance of the siren’s secondary function as a (largely ignored) warning of little-enforced youth curfew (it sounded at 10:45 in the summer and on weekends, 9:45 on school nights.) Would i pay for the thing to be repaired at this stage in the game? No. Our volunteers have pagers and cell phones, and I live a little too close to the fire hall to believe that shriek wouldn’t swiftly move from nostalgia-engine to headache-generator. And yet….

  3. Pingback: Change in Sewickley: Character Matters, But to Whom? | John Linko

  4. Pingback: Summer Digest – Litigation, Preservation, Rehabilitation, Reflection, Intrusion | John Linko

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