NY volunteer fire department fights to keep station siren

Some on the department argue that the sirens are a good back up to pagers that can be unreliable


By Dennis Yusko
Times Union

HALFMOON, N.Y. — Each day for nearly 50 years, a siren atop the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department wailed across the fields of suburban Halfmoon and the enclave of Mechanicville below, alerting responders to emergencies and notifying residents of high noon.

But months ago, commissioners of Halfmoon Fire District No. 1 disconnected the siren to renovate the Hillcrest station. They later decided to not replace it. Commissioners argued there were easier, more effective ways to alert members to fires, car wrecks and other crises, and the audible signal was no longer worth the expense.

"The siren is actually quite ineffective," said Victor Knorowski, vice chairman of Hillcrest's board of commissioners. Much of the department's 12-square-mile coverage area can't hear it, and a radio paging system works better at a more affordable price, he said. The siren would have cost up to $20,000 to purchase and install, Knorowski said.

The silencing of the siren has created a disagreement among members, some of whom are related.

George McBride, a member of Hillcrest for more than four decades, started a campaign to reinstate the siren. The 58-year-old firefighter and emergency technician lives about 500 feet from the station on Pruyn Hill Road. George McBride believes pagers weren't always reliable and a siren would still play a vital communication role.

"When you're out working in the yard on a lawn mower, you can't hear your pager but you can hear that siren," McBride said. He said he's seen two firefighters stand next to each other and only one of their pagers go off. Also, some members can forget to wear the pagers or turn them back on, McBride said. He is the cousin of Jim McBride, the chairman of the fire district board. Jim McBride could not be reached for comment.

Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department is located near Mechanicville schools and a large sports complex. This year, it celebrates its 50th year of serving Halfmoon, Mechanicville and parts of Clifton Park. Its siren was installed in the mid-1960s and taken down about six months ago, George McBride said. It informed motorists and residents of problems, unlike department pagers, George McBride said.

The department has used pagers for several years and could add text messaging soon, said Knorowski, a firefighter since 1969. State vehicle and traffic law requires responding emergency vehicles to employ audible signals, while sirens at fire stations are not required. Local communities decide if they want station sirens, State Fire Administrator Bryant Stevens said.

"You need to have reliable systems and some redundancy built into the process," Stevens said. He couldn't say how many other stations had deactivated their sirens.

About 30 active volunteers at Hillcrest carry pagers, Knorowski said. Modern pagers feature multiple settings that announce and record all dispatch calls, he said. "We know where we are going before we even go to station," Knorowski said.

The fire station siren is a safety measure based in years of tradition, George McBride said. While pagers and cellphones are vulnerable to mechanical failure, sirens have proven their dependability, he said.

"I think we're relying on technology too much," George McBride said. He said those who feel the same should go to www.saveoursiren.com or contact their board commissioners, all of whom are elected officials, he said.

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(c)2014 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

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