Gladstone's old air raid siren could become monument
Do you know what this is? Are you aware that this equipment belongs to the city of Gladstone? Do you know where it is located?
This is a piece of our town's history and tradition. It is no longer in use today; however, it may be a fun thing to discuss with your children or grandchildren.
This unit is the old air raid siren that sits on top of the old City Hall building next to the fire station. It is in this location because it could be heard across most of the city in the 1940-'50s. In those days, the fire station, housing a 1941 Ford and a 1948 International fire engine, was located on Dartmouth instead of Portland Avenue where the fire station is located today.
I cannot tell you for certain if it was ever used as an air raid siren during WWII. However, I can tell you it was used to summon the volunteer firefighters that protected our city. As a child, I had first-hand knowledge of this old siren because I grew up only a few blocks away, and my father was a Gladstone volunteer firefighter in the late '60s and early '70s.
By the 1960's the firefighters were entering the electronic age. In addition to the air raid siren on City Hall, Gladstone was starting to issue a home radio receiver, to each firefighter. With these home units, firefighters were notified more efficiently to respond from home to the station. With these radios inside the home, firefighters could be alerted of an emergency.
By the early 1980's, the fire department was equipping their firefighters with smaller mobile units. They were newer more modern alerting tools, but the old air raid siren was still in use. You always knew that you could hear the siren cycle once every Wednesday night at 7p.m., during firefighter training.
As we rolled in to the 1990's, Gladstone had a strong and active volunteer firefighting force. We were about 35 members strong and were toned out to fire calls 229 times in 1991. In January 1993, firefighters added Emergency Medical Response to our duties. By 1995, our yearly call volume increased to almost 900 calls. This substantial change in our volume of calls from 1991 to 1995 was a significant factor leading to changes of when the old siren was used. Our town tolerated the use of the siren when it was used sparingly. However, once the old siren would sound 2-3 times per day, the questions began coming in asking if the siren was really needed. Fire department leaders made the decision to continue use every Wednesday night for firefighter training, but perhaps we did not need to sound it for all calls. It took a few more years to break old habits, but the decision was made to sound the siren less and less often. By the year 2000, we discussed using the siren only for house fires, drownings and commercial structure fires. In the early 2000's our call volume had increased to over 1200 calls per year. The siren was still in operation but its usage became less and less with time.
On a mid-September day in 2001 we had a house fire and rang the "air raid siren/fire siren" as we had done for years. The town was sent into a panic. Only a few days earlier, on Sept. 11, air traffic in our skies had stopped due to terrorist attacks on the East Coast. Due to the community scare caused by the old air raid siren, it was disabled for about 6 months following 9/11. After a time, we began using it again for Wednesday night training, serious fires and drownings.
Fast forwarding to 2020, technology has improved and there's an app that is used to alert us to any 911 calls for help.
Do we need the "old siren" anymore? Perhaps it is best left in our memories. Plans are in process to build a beautiful new library on the site of the old City Hall and we have more efficient ways to notify our firefighters of an emergency.
The control panel for the old siren has been removed in preparation to remove the siren from the corner of the building before demolition starts. The siren has sounded its last warning, but to some of us, its howl still fills our ears in our memories. We plan to remove it from its perch but not from the city. City leaders are considering keeping it close to the fire station in some way. Possibly in the form of some type of historical monument. Stay tuned for updates, as ideas are generated.
As always, stay safe, test your smoke alarms, and for any questions, please call my office at 503-557-2775.
Gladstone Fire Marshal Mike Funk is a 42-year veteran of the department.
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