BOWDEN – When town council heard before the Oct. 16 municipal election there was a confidential citizen complaint about “intrusive noise pollution” caused by the familiar noon-hour fire siren there was genuine surprise.
“I've had people say to me they like the old siren; that you know, it's kind of a nostalgic kind of a thing,” said Coun. Sheila Church back in September.
The tradition of the noon-hour siren in Bowden goes back more than 70 years when the community's council at the time first looked at getting a fire siren. According to the local history book Pioneer Legacy Bowden and Districts, a siren was offered in 1946 for $191.90 but council did not go ahead with the purchase.
Three years later the provincial Fire Commissioners Office was pressing the community to install one but no action was taken. In 1950, council found a used one through the Provincial Marketing Board and issued a cheque to purchase it, but the sale did not go through; the cheque returned due to a “prior sale of the siren.”
Two years later council was finally able to secure and buy a fire siren for the amount of $619.61, “with a tab” of $217.79 for installation and $104.50 for weather protection.
Today the siren still gives its familiar blast at noon from its physical location outside the Bowden Fire Hall, even if there is at least one dissenting voice in town claiming it “frightens” visitors and some locals.
Larry Werner, chief and a member of the Bowden Fire Department for the past 25 years, said he could not understand the fuss, even if it was just started by one disgruntled citizen in the community of 1,200.
“I don't know why anybody would complain about that unless there is not something better to do. It was just to let people know that it was lunchtime – it's noon,” said Werner. “That was the old way before radios and everything else. That's how it used to notify firefighters that there was an emergency in town.
“They used to be in every small community in Alberta,” he added. “There are still some out there, but we are probably the only ones that keep ours up to date and activated.”
Werner agreed the noon hour siren is a nice tradition to have but emphasized it can still be used in an actual emergency, such as a tornado.
“It only goes off for about a few seconds, but if it goes on and on you know something is about to hit the fan,” he said.
Werner said when he first joined the department a quarter century ago there were just five firefighters, but all had what was then called fire phones – all connected to the big community siren.
“This was back before 911. If somebody had a fire they phoned the number to the fire hall and all five of these phones were in people's houses and it would ring,” said Werner, adding he had one in his Bowden house 18 years ago and it was a separate phone from the communal one in the home. “Somebody would pick it up and write down the information on what was on fire. “There was a red button on it and you pushed it, and it would make the siren go off and would alert all the firefighters that there was an incoming call and you should get your butt to the fire hall.”
The fire phones were discontinued many years ago when 911 came into operation with the new digital messaging system called Active911, which delivers alarms, maps and critical information to first responders.
In the meantime, the old siren still goes on, and council last month was not about to change its status, although they did pass a motion to file the complaint as “information.”
“For me it is a lovely tradition. It's like ringing a school bell,” said Coun. Wayne Milaney last September.
“Well, at least you know it's time for lunch,” he added later with a laugh.
With files from Doug Collie
Larry Werner, chief of the Bowden Fire Department
"I don't know why anybody would complain about that unless there is not something better to do. It was just to let people know that it was lunchtime – it's noon.