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Sunday, July 14, 2024


Wails, Warbles and Other Calls to Action

By Al Campbell

The answer could depend upon where you live.
If home is inland, away from rising back bays, chances are that the wavering tone is alerting volunteer firefighters that their services are needed, pronto.
If home has beautiful sunset views over waterways or marshes, and there’s a wicked northeaster barreling up the coastline, the siren alarm is likely a flood alarm.
After a reader called the Herald recently to inquire about a siren he’d heard, and wondered what it meant, the question began to bug the newsroom staff.
Sirens, it seems, remain the last bastion of home rule left in New Jersey.
Every town has sirens, even though volunteer firefighters carry radio pagers that alert them of a call.
So why are sirens still used to summon aid?
Consider: Many volunteer firefighters have jobs in noisy environments. The sound of saws or motors can easily drown out the pager’s pitches. So, sirens, alarming as they may be to the uninitiated, still serve a purpose.
In Avalon, where a new siren system is slated to be in operation by month’s end, the present siren wails its up-and-down tone for 90 seconds, according to Chief Kevin Scarpa, rescue squad chief, who oversees the emergency sirens.
Locations of sirens, which haven’t changed in decades, are 13th, 30th and 67th streets, said Scarpa.
In all likelihood, the new siren system will include a flood warning.
It will “give us the ability to store messages” that will be broadcast over the system, said Scarpa.
While some other towns rely on sirens to warn residents to move cars and other property that salt water may ruin, Avalon has its own ALERT AM emergency advisory radio station, (1630 on the dial) that broadcasts a variety of weather-related alerts.
That system was funded by an $18,000 grant from the N.J. State Police Office of Emergency Management.
Stone Harbor also has a siren system that allows messages to be broadcast to residents when floods are imminent. But there’s also an alarm to summon firefighters, when needed.
The traditional fire alarm is an up and down cycle to alert firefighters.
Should there be an actual, “working” structure fire, a second tone, different than the first is sounded, said Administrator Kenneth Hawk, a volunteer firefighter.
When flooding is imminent, a “warbling sound” siren is broadcast followed by a recorded voice alert via the community-wide speaker system.
The pre-recorded messages contain various information and alerts.
Police dispatchers control all alarms.
Sea Isle City uses its sirens only for summoning firefighters and for a noon test.
In North Wildwood, where Emergency Manager Augustus “Gus” Mason has over seen nearly three decades of floods from new and full moons, as well as from northeasters, hurricanes and unusual tides, sirens are distinct.
A steady blast for 30 seconds, then off, then another steady blast, then off, then another steady blast for 30 seconds forewarns impending high salt water, not from rain-caused street flooding, said Mason.
Fire sirens in that city are different, he said.
“A normal fire call has a wailing sound, up and down and continues for a while,” he said.
“We had to differentiate this from flood calls,” said Mason.
He said prior to sounding a flood alert, the city’s police dispatcher will alert firefighters via radio pagers that the tone they will hear is a flood alert, not a fire alarm.
There are two sirens in the city, at Second and New Jersey avenues atop Anglesea Fire House and at the firehouse, 15th and Central avenues.
“A lot of times, with northeast winds blowing hard, the sound of the siren doesn’t reach the (Anglesea) Beach Colony,” said Mason.
“We’re looking to add a siren, but they’re very expensive. We’ve tried to find someone, or some insurance company, to help pay for one. After all, if they alert someone to move a $50,000 Cadillac, they’re saved the company the cost for only a few thousand dollars,” said Mason.
“So far, we haven’t had much luck,” he added.
In neighboring Wildwood, a siren sounds seven times, up and down, to alert volunteers in the municipal division of a fire, said Capt. Dale Gentek.
Those alarms are dispatched through the city police department.
When tidal flooding is about to occur, Gentek said word is passed from the county Office of Emergency Management, or, “if we recognize tidal flooding is taking place,” a three-cycle siren system is used, Gentek said.
Those sirens are manually sounded from within the fire department for 30 seconds, solid sound, followed by a minute rest, another 30-second blast, another minute rest, and finally another 30-second blast.
Those who reside on the flood-prone west side then take heed to move their cars to high ground.
Wildwood’s siren is located atop City Hall, but the alert is also sent out over radio pagers, he said.
If winds are favorable, residents in West Wildwood may hear Wildwood’s flood sirens, although their borough operates its own siren.
West Wildwood’s Emergency Management Coordinator James Fox said there are two distinct siren sounds, one for fires, which is high-low for an eight-time cycle.
Residents there are alerted to flooding conditions by a single, 40-second blast.
“Depending on conditions and the wind, we will sound it twice. Normally, we wait about 20 minutes in between so as not to panic people,” said Fox.
When flooding is expected, the local police go door to door to alert residents who may not have heard the alert. Residents usually move their cars to North Drive, a dirt road off Neptune, which is a “very high area,” said Fox.
The borough is planning to seek funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a speaker system, similar to those in Avalon and Stone Harbor, Fox said.
Sirens in Wildwood Crest can mean three different things. But they are not sounded after 11 p.m. or before 7 a.m.
A single siren in the Crest, sounded for 30 seconds, means there is a general alarm for one of two squads on duty for a week at a time.
The borough’s firefighters have divided into two squads so that not everyone is required to respond to every fire call.
If a siren sounds six consecutive times, it means a full alarm, an actual fire (as opposed to a false alarm) in an occupied dwelling, motel or fully involved structure fire.
The flood siren, like those in Wildwood and North Wildwood, sounds for 30 seconds, rests a minute, sounds again for 30 seconds, rests another minute, then sounds for a final 30 seconds.
Sirens in the Crest are located at Morning Glory Road and New Jersey Avenue, at the police department, Cardinal and Pacific avenues, and at Topeka and New Jersey avenues.
Cape May City residents will hear two distinct siren sounds; one summons volunteer firefighters, the other alerts for flooding.
According to Fire Chief Jerry Inderweis Jr., the fire alert system is vintage, but works.
Rooted in former “pull boxes,” no longer used since they made sounding false alarms too easy, the system sounds a number of tones, which pinpoint a fire location.
Those fire alarms, which sound three times over the claxon horn regardless of the hour, are manually operated from the fire department to alert volunteers of a fire location.
The department had paid firefighters, for initial response, but relies on volunteers to add manpower when a large fire occurs.
Like counterparts in other areas of the county, Inderweis advocates use of the siren, even though firefighters carry radio pagers.
That’s because if a volunteer is working near loud equipment, the radio page is inaudible, but not the claxon.
Flood sirens, which consist of a long blast, followed by a pause, sounded three times, are situated in five locations around the city, according to Robert Smith, emergency management coordinator and public works superintendent.
“They’re very helpful, and we used them in the last few days,” said Smith.
An area that often gets such a warning is Yacht Avenue, located in the north end.
Smith has noticed a decrease in amount of flooding since the 1993-94 beach replenishment.
“We have also improved pump stations,” he said. “We rebuilt Benton Avenue and Frog Hollow station about a year ago,” he added.
Still, flooding may occur when outfall pipes get clogged with sand, especially on Beach Avenue, Smith said.
As soon as tides recede, crews clear sand from the pipes, he said.
The city continues to make improvements to flood-prone areas, he added.
“As an example, we reconstructed Elmira and Bank streets several years ago. When we did, we raised the elevation of them, and put small berms in to reduce tidal flooding,” Smith said.
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