Remembering The Town Crier

In this age of cell phones and internet service, I recall the most basic form of mass communication back in the day—public address sirens.  These guys sounded the alarm from coast to coast in communities all over America.  One Baltimore area radio announcer (WBAL) called them “Baltimore’s sirens in the sky…”  These high on a pole screamers kept people informed.  They prompted attention.

Sirens have served a number of purposes—fire, Civil Defense, severe weather, earthquake, blast warnings, mine collapse, and even the Noon whistle some places.  Whenever Washington, D.C. civil authorities sounded Civil Defense sirens all over the National Capital Area, my mother always called them the “12 o’clock whistle…” even though they sounded at different times.  She didn’t quite understand it was a Civil Defense test, nothing more.    

The most common Civil Defense siren was the Federal Signal Thunderbolt 1000T. Whenever we think of a nuclear attack warning, the 1000T comes to mind. It made a creepy bizarre sound in the middle of a school day that roared across the treetops for miles. It was an even more unsettling sound when they shut it down and it wound down to a stop. If they cycled the 1000T on and off, it became almost unbearable. It roared up and down, echoing its powerful voice through a long horn. People would run for Civil Defense shelters just to get away from the roar of a Federal 1000T.

When you heard the 1000T, you knew it was important.

Where I grew up in Maryland, local volunteer fire departments had alert sirens high on poles or on top of buildings.  They sounded three times for fire and once for the rescue squad.  Each community had its own unique siren.  My hometown had a Federal 3T22 siren, which emitted a high/low tone.  There was a time when the siren failed and both pitches sounded at the same time to produce a harmony.  They repaired the 3T22 and it was back to the familiar comforting high/low tone.  We could all sleep better.

There was nothing quite like hearing this siren blow at 2 a.m.  You knew someone was in big trouble in the middle of the night.  If it blew three times, even bigger trouble.  I will never forget the morning we had a fire in our home.  Nothing quite like hearing the 3T22 – knowing they were coming to your house. As my father and I fought the fire and choked on the smoke, the roar of those Detroit diesel-powered pumpers coming up the street was comforting. Bowie’s Company 39, and that 3T22, saved many a life and property. We can all be grateful for their service.

I’ve also lived in the Midwest where tornado warnings were announced by a collection of different sirens that created a bizarre harmony across the community.  Every once in a great while, authorities tested these sirens.  That got everyone in a panic.  Such is life in the heartland with its very unpredictable weather patterns. I recall a YouTube video where a Pampa, Texas tornado took out one of the warning sirens.

Talk about shooting the messenger?

Electronics has taken all the fun out of the siren song.  I recall sitting in my bedroom at age 7 back in 1964 listening to firefighters horsing around with the newfound bark of an electronic ambulance siren behind our apartment complex.  I couldn’t imagine what on earth that sound was.  It didn’t sound like a siren.  They played all of the different settings.  In time, that electronic “yelp” became routine.

I can remember the thrill of Federal Signal “Q2B” blower sirens on the front bumper of firetrucks.  We’ve all heard it. Federal Signal still makes it.  It is a huge centrifugal blower with choppers and orifices that let out a scream you could hear in China.  Federal Signal, manufacturer of all sorts of warning sirens, designed this puppy to make at least 123 db, which could be heard above all else, including your Bose sound system. There’s no way you wouldn’t hear it above Led Zeppelin.   The Q2B is so effective it has never fallen from grace.  It makes an incredible amount of noise.

Noise to some.  A symphony to others – like firefighters.

Alert sirens became white noise in the background for a lot of communities.  We heard them as we got about our business.  The 3T22 in my hometown became an old friend.  If you were in the shopping mall parking lot where this siren was behind the firehouse, it was startling and attention getting whenever it blew.  I’d stand there in front of the bowling alley and listen to its voice.  I’d hyperfocus on it as it wound down to a stop. 

It was an awe-inspiring sound.

Today, that old 3T22 screamer remains atop a wooden pole some 30 feet in the air full of birds’ nests and other debris. Its bright yellow finish has been bleached away by the elements over time.  It hasn’t sounded in decades—yet there it remains.  It is impossible for any of us native to the suburban Washington community of Bowie, Maryland to imagine Company 39 without that siren.  It became a familiar voice that accompanied us the whole time we were growing up. I’d come home for a visit from the Air Force and hear the 3T22, signaling memories that would remain forever.

Sirens remain a distant memory we would welcome hearing decades later. 

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