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NJ town split on siren use

Some say smartphones and pagers are a better alternative to using sirens

By Rebecca Baker
Herald News

WEST PATERSON, N.J. — In an age when people communicate by text and tweet, pole-mounted fire sirens seem like a throwback to another era.

For decades, the high-pitched horns served as a reveille to volunteer firefighters throughout North Jersey, calling them to duty from the far reaches of the community.

But with the advances in technology, some are questioning the need for sirens. Many firefighters and safety officials argue that the sirens remain a crucial alert system that works when all else fails, pointing to the widespread power outages during superstorm Sandy. But some residents and a few firefighters say pagers, cellphones and smart phones have made the sirens obsolete, prompting some communities, such as Ridgewood and Saddle River, to dispose of them.

“In the seven years I’ve been employed here I don’t think there’s been a missed call,” Saddle River Fire Chief Richard Silvia said. “If you miss it on one [device], you’re getting it on the others.”

The opposing views have fueled a long-running battle over fire sirens throughout New Jersey, one that has sparked heated debate at public meetings and at least two lawsuits seeking to silence the sirens for good.

Englewood Cliffs is being sued by a school board member, Gerard Misk, an attorney who claims the borough’s sirens violate the state’s Noise Control Act and that the way officials went about replacing them was improper. Misk said the fire siren, which sits 100 feet from his house, has been an unwelcome neighbor.

“They’re supposed to turn it off at 10 p.m., but sometimes they’d forget and my daughter would wake up screaming, literally, in the middle of the night,” he said.

The borough was supposed to upgrade its three fire sirens last year, but questions about the contract with the vendor delayed the work. Misk’s lawsuit, filed in December, has now halted the project indefinitely. The only new siren is at Borough Hall; the other two have not been installed.

As a result, the 38 volunteer firefighters in Englewood Cliffs are called to duty through pagers and cellphones, leading Misk to question if the sirens ever need to be reactivated.

“It seems unnecessary to me, but I’m not rushing into a burning building,” he said.

Technology fallible

Some fire departments have fought hard to keep their sirens. Mahwah waged a four-year legal battle to preserve its sirens for its 150 volunteer firefighters against residents who argued that they amounted to little more than noise pollution. An appellate court judge sided with the township in 2010, prompting two of the plaintiffs to sell their houses.

Mahwah Fire Chief Ed Garza said the mountainous terrain in the 27-square-mile township creates “dead spots” for pagers and cellphones. He said the nine sirens are an insurance policy against human error.

“In the summer, sometimes they don’t have their phone on them, so the first thing they hear is the siren,” he said. “I’m the chief, and sometimes I’ve left my stuff at home.”

Devices such as cellphones and pagers can malfunction too easily, said Montvale Fire Chief Clinton Miller. That’s why, he said, the borough still uses its two fire sirens that have been around “since Moby Dick was a guppy.” “With technology, as good as everyone thinks it is, it isn’t that good,” he said. “It’s good only if it works.”

‘Invaluable’ backup

Firefighters in Wayne wish the township would bring back the fire sirens that were phased out years ago, Fire Commissioner Steven Toth said. The volunteer department relies on pagers, but Toth said he is concerned they could fail.

“If the pager system went down, can you imagine how long it would take to call firefighters by phone?” he said. “Even if you used a Reverse 911 system, we all know that cellphone service is sporadic.”

Toth said fire sirens are an “invaluable” backup system and serve as a critical public safety tool, despite being unpopular with some homeowners.

“You get the same complaints from residents -- they’re too noisy, too expensive. We understand residents don’t want them going off at three in the morning. But if it was your house on fire, you’d want that siren going off.”

Mahwah is among several communities that silence or restrict their alarms at night. After 7 p.m., Mahwah sounds the fire sirens only for confirmed structure, car or brush fires, or when someone reports smelling smoke, Garza said.

Silvia, whose Saddle River department has five paid firefighters who work weekdays and 25 volunteers who work nights and weekends, said each community has to weigh the interests of public safety with the quality of life for residents when deciding if fire sirens are necessary.

“Everybody has to look at it from both sides and come up with a solution that works for everybody involved,” he said.

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