It’s something that’s bothered me ever since I moved to Darien eight years ago. What is the Code?
Other things bothered me, sure. Like, why do we need the loud honking fire department horns in the age of telephones and cell phones and pagers in the first place? Why are they so loud and how loud are they, exactly? If I were standing right next to one when it went off, would I lose my hearing instantly?
But, it was the Code that kept me up at nights wondering; that is, after the honking horns woke me up in the first place. What do the seemingly random number of honks mean?
When I moved to Noroton Heights, right near the fire station, the Code became an obsession of mine. One Sunday morning at 7 a.m., the honking horns awakened me. Will it be four honks and then I can go back to sleep, I sleepily wondered. Four times they honked, and my attention focused: what would happen next? More honks. Five, six, seven, eight, nine ... would it ever end? I heard the horns honking at the other two fire stations: Darien and Noroton. How many times did they honk?
By then I was fully awake and wondering: what does it mean? A fire? A stranded cat?
One summer when I had guests over for a bar-be-que, the horn at Noroton Heights Fire Department began honking. One of my guests clutched his chest while the others exclaimed with shock and then giggled nervously. But I paid no attention to that. I was counting the number of honks. Trying to crack the Code.
I grew accustomed to the honking horns. Narnia has the hunting horn, I thought. In Middle Earth they have bonfires on top of mountains. We have the honking horns.
Finally, when I recently started doing “investigative journalism” and actually getting paid for it, I decided to make cracking the Code my mission.
After some inquiries, I got an email from Fire Marshall Robert Buch, “The horns are used to alert our volunteer firefighters of a fire call,” he wrote me. “And they are used for all calls.” All calls!
Why horns instead of more modern forms of communication, like pagers, I queried.
“The firefighters do carry pagers (voice type) to broadcast the location and type of call,” wrote Buch. “However the horns serve as a second means of alerting the volunteers which is required by the Insurance Services Office as part of our Public Protection Classification rating. This rating is used by the insurance companies to determine the premiums that homeowners are charged.”
Buch did not know what the decibel level of the horns was.
I next spoke with Gary Plank, the Chief of the Noroton Heights Fire Department. Plank told me that he also does not know the decibel level of the horns, but they don’t really have to know because they are “exempt from town ordinances.”
“What is the Code?” I asked him.
“There is no code,” said Plank. “You may hear different numbers – if they get a double page then the horns will keep going off. It’s just a notification that they have a fire call. When you hear the eight or ten times it’s probably because the dispatch has done a double page for some reason.”
I overcame my disappointment and continued asking questions. "What are the hours when horns are permitted to be used?" I asked.
“24/7,” said Plank.
"So they use them in the middle of the night,” I asked, somewhat incredulous.
“They will sometimes double page in the middle of the night to make sure that people got out of bed and that they respond,” answered Plank.
“So, just when you want them to shut up that’s when they’ll go off more,” I said.
“Why, oh why?” I said, or something to that effect.
“If members are outside mowing the lawn or doing something they might not hear a pager but they will hear the horns,” said Plank.
"What about vibrate?" I asked. "Don’t the pagers have a vibrate?"
“The pagers do have a vibrate – they have a number of different pagers but they do have a vibrate,” said Plank. “Most of the time the pagers go off also but they’ll also have the horns going off too. It’s never changed. That’s the way it’s always been since I’ve known it – since the 1960s – before they had pagers.”
So I learned that the horns go off for every summoning of the fire department volunteers. This could be for a fire or a car accident or a false alarm at your neighbor’s house.
“We have over four hundred calls a year,” said Plank.
Over four hundred times a year, the horns honk.
“I think they’re necessary,” said Plank, when I asked him what he thought about them.
After I thanked Plank for his volunteer work and hung up, I thought about this. We are so vulnerable, relying on our phones and pagers and internet. Perhaps the fire department and the insurance companies have a point. I thought about how backup systems might be useful in other aspects of our life. Especially in this age of bar code scanners and EZ Pass and twittering and health care legislation that won’t pass and global warming and disposable butt wipes. You just never know when the System might betray you.
So I thought of some other ideas that might perhaps save our community some day:
Bongo drums: Probably won’t break in an emergency. For communication.
Semaphore flags: Classy and effective for visual communication.
Fire signals: Everyone should have a pile of sticks and an old blanket in their yard just in case.
Firecrackers: Great audibility! Just don’t let them get wet.
If you have any other ideas about how we can protect our community, please let me know.