Love them or hate them, Holyoke’s trademark sirens have a long and loud history
For years, information collected about Holyoke’s famous (or infamous) sirens has sat idle, just begging to be put into a story. Some have been enticed enough by their mystery to put in hours and hours of research, while others have pieced together the articles into a skeleton of a history, but a final story has never been produced.
Once again that stack of articles has sought out another author who fell victim to their siren song. What has been collected is an incomplete account of the city’s sirens, missing many years and countless personal accounts, but perhaps the glimpse at the past can stir up some memories or new discussions about what the future holds for the sirens.
Whether it meant time to wake up for school, go home for lunch, go back to work after lunch, get off work, run home for dinner or even scoot home for curfew, everyone who has ever lived in Holyoke has a story about the trademark sirens.
Every weekday at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., the blare of the sirens can be heard from anywhere in town as well as out of town in some areas. In the past, they have also fired up at 1 p.m.
They fill the air with sound when the fire department is summoned or in the worst-case scenario—a tornado is spotted or on the way to Holyoke.
All six sirens in town are identical and can provide different tones for different warnings. The morning, noon and night whistles are all short blasts while the fire whistle oscillates between tones for as long as the fire department needs.
The tornado warning is signaled by a steady, continuous three-minute sound. Once a tornado is confirmed within 10 miles of Holyoke, meaning it has touched down or debris is visible in the funnel cloud, the whistle is blown. A 30-second blast followed by 30 seconds of silence and another 30-second blast indicates the threat has subsided.
Over the years, different city councils have ordered the sirens not sound throughout the day at different times. The decisions have sparked many different opinions and letters to the editor. Phone calls were received from those who used to live in Holyoke and remember listening to the whistle when they were younger. One caller even suggested a history story be done outlining the sirens.
After many hours of flipping through old issues of newspapers, the Enterprise staff has found bits and pieces of what is undoubtedly a broken timeline of the sirens and whistles in Holyoke.
So when did the tradition of the siren blowing begin? When did the fire department begin using the siren to alert firefighters and the public? When was the first siren installed and when did it first go off?
The earliest report of a whistle was found in the Feb. 10, 1922, edition of the Phillips County Herald. “According to the whistler, every watch in town jazzes all around the correct time. Monday morning the 7 a.m. whistle blew at 7:20 a.m.”
The account goes on about who was to blame—the whistler H.M. Bowers or the town clock “Big Ben.” It’s clear by the article’s closing remarks that the whistle was an important part of everyday life in Holyoke. “While people do not have to go by the whistle when it blows at certain hours, they get in the habit of following it, and when it is off time, they are off time, too.”
In the Feb. 8, 1923, issue of the Enterprise, it was reported that the old fire bell was removed from its place on East Denver Street to the powerhouse to be used as a warning before the whistle blows.
Aug. 2, 1923, it was reported that the steam siren installed on the powerhouse would become the official fire alarm in Holyoke. From that time on, the screech of the siren would warn all of any conflagration.
It also said Holyoke was soon to be divided into wards, which would be designated by numbers, and the zone in which the fire was located would be shown by the number of blasts of the whistle.
The standard for sounding the sirens during an emergency situation dates far back for Holyoke, so the idea of silence may seem a bit strange, but every once in a while it happened. In 1927, the Enterprise reported a record-setting silence—one whole year without a fire alarm.
Friday, Jan. 28, 1927, at 3:30 a.m. marked exactly one year since the fire alarm was last sounded. The Garland Machine Shop was the last call received a year prior. During the 365-day span, not a sign of fire of any kind was detected in Holyoke.
In the Nov. 5, 1931, issue, a story said, “Another siren much larger than the one which had been tried out for the past 60 days at the Holyoke powerplant has been installed. The new siren has much more volume and can be heard probably twice as far.
“The old siren was only three horsepower, while the new one is seven and one-half. It will be used as a time whistle as has been the custom in the past, and will sound at 7 a.m., 12 noon, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., and will also be used for a fire alarm when the tone will be considerably different.
“The old siren was found to be much too small for a satisfactory fire alarm.”
In 1955, the fire siren went from being controlled from the powerplant to the Phillips County Telephone Co. exchange, according to a Feb. 17 article in the Enterprise. The article stated that the alarm would not be sounded until the operator received clear instructions to the fire’s location.
The regular 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. whistles continued to be controlled by automatic equipment at the powerplant, it stated in the same article.
Throughout the years, tests have been run to ensure all systems were working and to educate the public about the different warning sirens. It was no different in 1956. “There has been considerable confusion on the various alarms, and the test will be run to help eliminate this misunderstanding,” an article said. “The town council asks that the public concentrate on these signals so their meaning will be fully understood.”
The special tests of alarms were for a fire, which was an oscillating “up and down” sound that lasted for three minutes; the general alarm, which was a continuous three-minute blast; and the “take cover” alarm, which was two short blasts.
In the past, local civil defense officials have also utilized the sirens as warning signals, as reported in a the April 19, 1951, issue of the Enterprise. “A red alert or warning of an attack by a foreign aircraft, citizens of the town will be warned by a three-minute warbling signal by the town’s fire whistle. A fire whistle will be considerably shorter than this. After the danger is over, the all-clear signal, which is three one-minute blasts with two minutes of silence between each blast, will be given.”
In 1973, the tornado warning signal was revised. A segment of an ad in the May 24 edition of the paper read, “HOLYOKE WARNING SYSTEM: Tornado signal is one long blast approximately one minute in length, off 15 seconds, then another one minute blast. All-clear signal is one short blast.”
In 2000, city council members voted to purchase four new sirens. The idea was to increase the area the sirens could be heard during a tornado. High winds made it hard to hear the sirens in different parts of town.
The new sirens were to be placed along the city limits to allow residents to hear the warning regardless of the direction the wind is blowing.
The new system is electronic rather than the motor-driven air pump that was used previously. Installed Jan. 4, 2001, the new sirens were not up to snuff. While the sirens did test at 10 decibels louder at 200 feet, the old sirens were still 10 decibels louder at 800 feet.
A new bid for a five-siren Sentry system was considered that February, but the council instructed City Superintendent Mark Brown to visit a town that used the Sentry sirens to see how loud they are before a final decision was made.
After listening to the Sentry sirens in Otis and Hugo, Brown reported that the new sirens would be about three decibels louder.
With four of the new sirens installed at the edges of town and one downtown by the courthouse, a test was held in June of 2001 to allow residents to hear the new tones.
Most recently, a new warning siren was purchased in 2013 to be placed at the fairgrounds.
The siren located on East Johnson Street was installed to help reach parts of Holyoke that have trouble hearing it during high winds. —Enterprise photo
Sirens have always been a source of contention
The controversy of the sirens is no new development. In 1923, just months after the fire siren was installed, there were complaints about the use and abuse of the whistle. “The people of Holyoke seem to think that the fire whistle is an excuse for speeding to the scene of the fire instead of pulling into the curb to get out of the way of the firemen and fire equipment.”
Nearly 90 years later, the complaint was still the same. In 2010 at a city council meeting, councilman Kevin Scott drew from his experience as a fireman to argue that the fire whistle caused people to follow fire trucks to emergencies. He suggested the whistle only sound for a tornado.
The city council discussed the idea of turning the daily sirens off all together. In the end, the siren located near the fire department and Holyoke Marketplace would only sound in case of an emergency.
At some point, the 1 p.m. whistle was eliminated. Pulling from articles, it is known that the 1 p.m. whistle sounded in the 1930s but not the 1950s. It was once again present in the ’70s and eliminated again in the 1980s or ’90s.
The response was strong both for and against the daily whistles. In 2010, the council discussed adding the issue to the ballot while letters to the editor were submitted.
Sentiments ranged from “This antiquated system of public address is no longer needed” to “It has given Holyoke part of its identity” to “If we stop using the time whistles, how do we know they are working OK when it comes to the emergency ones?”
In the end, the city council nixed the idea of putting the issue on the ballot. For them, it boiled down to safety. The daily sirens serve as a test of the system, and Superintendent Brown said city crews could regularly test the downtown whistle to make sure it is working.
It has been a few years since any major discussion was held about the daily whistles. Much of the attention has turned to the protocol in place during tornado season.
The tension lies between those who think the whistle isn’t blown soon enough or often enough and those who think sounding the siren for every call would cause people to start ignoring the sirens.
Even if a tornado is reported, it must be verified by the National Weather Service or a certified spotter before the sirens sound.
The issue has come to light again this past tornado season with a confirmed tornado in Phillips County. One of the biggest concerns was the difficulty of confirming a tornado at night or in bad weather where visibility is greatly reduced.
Holyoke Enterprise Aug. 21, 2014