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Bells, Horns & Sirens: The History And Distinct Sound Of Pittsburgh-Area Fire Station Alerts

Everyone’s heard the siren of a fire truck as it zooms down the street. But the sounds associated with fire alerts have changed over time. All around the Pittsburgh region, fire stations alert volunteers and the public in distinct ways.

While working in Sewickley, Pa., Good Question! listener Luke Tippman heard a peculiar noise coming from the Cochran Hose Company.

"This thing, this buzzer, that sounds very different [from other fire alerts],” Tippman said.

Fire Chief Jan Von Hofen knows what Tippman heard. He’s been listening to the station’s fire horn for the past 51 years. It all started, he said, when the volunteer department was founded in 1876.

The company was started for the same reason as most other stations. “There were things burning down and the community felt the need for a fire department,” Von Hofen said.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

Sewickley’s station operated much like others in western Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Firefighters used hand-drawn hose carts and fetched water from wells and cisterns. Eventually, horses carried volunteers to a blaze. Now, the company has several Pierce Engine firetrucks that can pump about 1,000 gallons per minute.

Before cell phones and pagers, Von Hofen said fire officers would be alerted to a blaze via electric bells that’d been installed in their homes. They’d rush to the station and ring a large bell to alert the volunteers. But over time, the bells broke and in 1919, the Sewickley station decided to purchase a sturdy Gamewell Diaphone. The air-powered metal horn was a popular model for fire stations. Many can be heard from as far as 6 miles away. Originally Sewickley's was programmed to blow different cadences based on the location of the fire. It’s not like that anymore, Von Hofen said, usually the horn blasts for about 16 seconds.

“It was designed, initially, as a fire horn,” Von Hofen said. “A lot of people think they were boat horns or ship horns or from a mill, but it was always designed as a fire horn.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
The view from the main floor of the Cochran Hose Company in Sewickley, Pa., looking up toward the station's fire horn. The ropes going directly up the staircase are the manual trigger for the fire horn. Typically, it's operated digitally.

Other stations still have horns, but many don’t use them because residents complained about the noise. Von Hofen said he’s heard similar criticisms in Sewickley.

“There’s people that hate it and there’s people that think it serves a need,” Von Hofen said. “We’re trying to get a happy balance somewhere in between.”

Most volunteer departments use sirens. The Bellevue Volunteer Fire Company said they have a siren as part of their “readiness plan,” but only sound it “for events where the typical pager system has failed” or for a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  West View Volunteer Fire Department has two fire horns, mounted at Company 1 and Company 2, but said they only activate when “all call" is sounded in the borough of West View. When the units leave the borough, companies use “a specific tone that does not coinicide with the horn.”

City of Pittsburgh fire stations don’t use a horn or a siren. Historian Edward Ross said that’s because in 1870 when the department was established, city firefighters were paid. There was always someone on staff, no there was need to call volunteers in. The only exception, Ross said, was during WWII, when some stations were equipped with sirens to conduct air raid warnings.

Around 1880, the city installed Gamewell fire alarm boxes in neighborhoods. Ross said these metal devices were typically red or yellow and fixed to poles on street corners. A local policeman, business owner or resident would have a key that they’d use to open the box and pull down a hook in the case of a fire.

Credit Edward Ross
A Gamewell fire box that was once at the corner of Fallowfield and Crosby avenues in Beechview.

That hook, he said, would trigger an electrical signal that corresponded with the box’s number. A telegraph-like system would transfer the location to the fire dispatch center.

“If you pulled fire box 124, bells would ring out one...then two...then four,” Ross said.

Most firefighters knew their station’s numbers by heart. Ross said before motorized engines were introduced, even the horses recognized the bell patterns. But if they missed the bells, a ticker-tape machine would punch the corresponding number of holes in a piece of paper. On each station wall, Ross said, there was a board with all the numbers and locations in the city.

“They also had a list of index cards in the station that had down what fire apparatus was supposed to respond on that call to the first alarm of fire,” he said.

Credit John Gombita, via Edward Ross
One of the more than 2,000 running cards Pittsburgh used, showing which units responded on the 1st alarm to the 6th alarm for a blaze along the railroad tracks between Oakland and Bloomfield in 1920.

Eventually, vandalism and technological changes like pagers and cell phones made the boxes less useful and the city took them down in the 1980s. All calls are now phoned into the 911 call center.

But at the Cochran Hose Company, Von Hofen said the fire horn has become a way for volunteers to easily recognize their station’s call.

“If you’re ever with a group of firemen and you hear a siren go off, they all look at each other and cause they don’t know whose it is,” Von Hofen said. “Ours goes off and they all look at us, because they know whose it is. So, it’s very distinctive.”