Fire Horns: The Message Behind the Honk

What do those fire horns mean? Why are they so loud? And are they really necessary?

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.

Plank, “Yes.”

“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.

Siwanoy February 14, 2012 at 08:58 PM
if you want to cut down on all the calls you can do a few things... a) tell your neighbors not to have so many false alarms b) e-mail the selectman complaining about the amount of calls and suggest that the DPD NOT be responsible in dispatching the calls. (if they did a good job a it, they'd be able to test the horns and pager system at 18:00 every day, not have the "18:00 time test" at 18:50, 19:10, etc. (how you can even test the time I don't quite understand)
dkn001 April 06, 2012 at 08:15 PM
There is some information missing from the article. I am a volunteer EMT (licensed Emergency Medical Techician, requires 180 hours of training and a state test) on my town's rescue squad and we work closely with the Fire Department on fire emergencies. We also use the same dispatching system for other emergencies. First, during a fire, there are two types of "horns." One is the siren, which is what Kathryn discusses in the article above. This siren is used for all fires, and also for SOME non-fire emergency calls. I am on call one night per week as a volunteer. That is the only night that I turn my pager on. When I am on call, I am part of the nightly "duty crew" which consists of only 2 people. Me, the EMT. And a driver (no medical training). We're the only ones who are "obligated" to respond to a call for that night. Ok, so... what if it's 3am, and we need to transport a 400 pound man who is having a heart attack to the hospital. We can't lift him with just the 2 of us. How do we call for additional backup when everyone's pagers are off and everyone is sleeping? The SIREN. Continued in next comment, I ran out of space... :)
dkn001 April 06, 2012 at 08:19 PM
To continue the above: The siren is meant to wake you up, or cut through your lawn mower noise (as mentioned above), or etc (no, the vibrate does NOT alert me on my phone/pager while I'm mowing the lawn, IF I even have it in my pocket! I don't carry my pager everywhere for heaven's sakes! And if I do, the vibration is the lawnmower is more than enough that I won't feel the phone in my pocket). The siren is an alert that says HEY, we NEED MORE HELP, wake UP and come! You're not on duty but come ANYWAY! So that's why we need a siren. And we really do need it!! The other "horn" I mentioned above is the horn on the fire trucks themselves. During a fire, especially a major structure fire, you'll hear these horns blaring multiple times, typically in sequences of 3. The three horn honks tells everyone, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, it's UNSTABLE. When you're a firefighter inside a house, you can't hear crap, with a helmet on, the fire roaring, the hoses going. So how do you tell people to get out? Call them on a cell phone? Come on. If my friends are in a blazing house fire and I see the fire break through the roof and consume the whole front of the house, I'm sorry but I'm HONKING THAT HORN, even if it wakes you up. You can go back to sleep in 5 minutes. My friends can't come back to life. So, deal with it. If you want your emergencies to get handled and you want the firefighters to live, deal with the horns.
Stephy February 16, 2013 at 03:16 AM
Wow, I live right down the street from my town fire dept. I made that choice, I have no complaints about it because you get used to it and also I know that the sirens are for a good cause. I'm thankful for the volunteer fireman we have. They go out of their way to save others lives without pay. Many thanks go out to all volunteer firefighters.
Tom Kolakowski January 05, 2014 at 11:11 AM
I must say the writer is an idiot. I like all firemen coming to my house to save my family.


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