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In the digital age, is it time to silence fire companies' loud siren?

When the Williamsville Fire Department gets a call for help, people far and wide know something is up because a siren alerts firefighters to rush to the station on Main Street.

That's how it's been for decades at most fire departments in the area. The siren became a part of everyday life.

But in recent weeks, two Oakgrove Drive residents approached the Williamsville Village Board at its two most recent meetings and questioned the need for the noise. The whistle is loud and bothersome, they said.

"It's an anachronism and it gets to be an annoyance," Nick Roth said of the noise, which some fire chiefs call a whistle.

Jerry Mann told the board his granddaughter, who has Down syndrome, can't visit during the day because the whistle upsets her.

"When we have people over and the fire whistle's going off, you just stop your conversation and wait for it to end," Mann said. "It goes like seven times every time it goes off. The dogs are howling away because their ears are sensitive as well. It's a nuisance and I don't understand the benefit to it."

Is the whistle necessary in today's digital age when firefighters can be summoned by smartphone app, text, pager and radio?

Among other local fire departments, Kenmore stopped using its siren in 1994. The Snyder Fire Department, which neighbors Williamsville, also doesn't use one. The Ellicott Creek Volunteer Fire Company, which covers northwest Amherst, turned off  its whistle  about two years ago, Chief Joe Osika said.

About half of the 92 fire departments in the county no longer use the device, estimated Daniel J. Neaverth Jr., commissioner of Erie County's department of homeland security and emergency services.

"I see the value in it, but I also see the nuisance in some peoples' lives if at 3 o'clock in the morning the baby's sleeping and this thing's going off because you've got a first aid call," said Neaverth, who is also chief of Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Company in Orchard Park.

Williamsville Fire Chief Michael Measer  was not present at either board meeting to respond to residents' concerns. Measer, who is also vice president of Bee Group Newspapers, also declined to comment for this story and did not want to discuss the topic in public at the Village Board's work session, saying he thought the issue was being blown out of proportion.

But in an email to village officials obtained by The Buffalo News, Measer defended the use of the whistle, saying it continues to play an important role in alerting members.

He said the whistle served as "a primary alerting device" for firefighters for many years until the invention of the radio.  Even then, the whistle was still valuable because radios were not yet portable. Once radio technology improved and became portable, the whistle became more of a backup device. Technology improved further and allowed the department to alert members by alpha numeric pager and now by apps and text messages on smartphones.

About 10 years ago, the village stopped activating the whistle for all alarms at all hours and for lunchtime at noon. It is now activated only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., the chief wrote.

To Roth and Mann, that proves the fire department can get along fine without the siren the other 12 hours.

The Depew Fire Department also sounds its siren during limited hours, between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., said Fire Chief Scott Wegst.

Anecdotally, Wegst said many fire companies surrounding Depew also use whistles, including the Village of Lancaster, Bellevue, Twin District and Bowmansville. He knows because he can hear their different tones from his house.

"With the minimal cost to maintain it, I don't see it going away anytime soon," he said.

Measer cited four reasons why the whistle is still necessary:

  • It provides greater safety for firefighters responding to the station on foot by making motorists more alert and cautious in the village's busy business district.
  • It alerts members who may not have their pager or smartphone on them at the time that there is an alarm and they should respond.
  • It creates public awareness that volunteers are sometimes responding multiple times a day. "In an age when volunteerism is scarce, this serves as a tool to remind those that depend on us that we are answering their call, "the chief wrote.
  • Finally, the whistle serves as a backup device in the event of a power outage. "Phone and pager batteries go dead, power grids have outages, technical difficulties cause modern day methods to not work," Measer said.

Village Trustee Deb Rogers said several residents have complained to her this year about the whistle, but that the chief's reasoning convinced her of the need to continue using it.

"If it saves them a minute or two, whatever that timing is, if it was my house I'd want them here as soon as possible," she said.

The Orchard Park Fire District, consisting of the Hillcrest, Windom and Orchard Park companies, recently decided to be more selective and sound their air siren only when there's a major incident like a confirmed structure fire, said Neaverth.

"We've become desensitized," he said. "My personal opinion, and what we've come up with in Orchard Park, is to have it so that when that siren goes off it better get your attention because there's something going on."

His district handles over 4,000 calls a year, and 90 percent are medical emergencies, which don't require a vast response by volunteers, he said.

"If we set that thing off for every false alarm, I'm sure these days we would have a lot more complaints from the folks in Orchard Park," Neaverth said.

Depew also still operates its three sirens, located at the fire hall on George Urban Boulevard in the village's west end, on Terrace Boulevard in the south and on Olmstead Avenue in the north.

Wegst said he did recently received complaints about the siren on Terrace Boulevard from residents of the Terrace Park Apartments, a new senior living complex in the former Depew High School.

"That's the first one that I've had in a long time though," he said.

Wegst looks at the whistles as a third way of notifying members about alarms, along with pagers and smartphone apps like I Am Responding.

"It seems like an antiquated thing," he said. "I really couldn't tell you how useful it is compared to the notification by the pagers. It's just something that has been a tradition in the fire service for many, many years."

In Kenmore, the rooftop whistle was used for 77 years, beginning in 1917, until pagers and radios made it obsolete, said Don Unkrich, the Kenmore Volunteer Fire Department historian.

"We do not have ours operational anymore," said former Kenmore Fire Chief Peter J. Breitnauer. "I know there were some issues with it. It was getting old and not working properly."

Roth, the Oakgrove resident, said the whistle is "redundant" and detracts from quality of life in the village. He'd like to see Williamsville follow Orchard Park's example and activate the siren  only for major incidents.

But Measer said attention should instead be paid toward bolstering the Williamsville department's ranks, which now numbers 50 active men and women.

"My hope is that rather than take time to have conversations on how a handful of residents are 'bothered' by the sound of this device, we can have conversations about the need for volunteers in our department and reach out to those that desire to serve their community and join our ranks," he wrote.

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