Over the past several months letters have appeared in your newspaper calling for the "retirement" of the audible alarm system (horns and sirens) used to alert volunteer firefighters of the Port Washington Fire Department of fire, ambulance and other emergency calls. An equal number of letters have appeared supporting the continued use of the audible alarms. I would like to explain the importance of the system.
The Port Washington volunteer fire department utilizes a dual system to alert its members of an emergency - a voice alerting system (pagers) and the audible alarms. The audible alarm has been a tried and true method of alerting firefighters in Port Washington for over 60 years and is still relevant in today's technological world. Many generations of Port residents have grown up depending on this system. Over the years residents who were not associated with the fire department have learned the meanings of the different sequences of horn "blasts" and routinely inquired about a fire or ambulance call and expressed concern for the well-being of the firefighters that responded.
During the 1960s the audible alarm was augmented by the voice alerting system to provide members with information about the location of an emergency and other vital information important to the members responding. These two systems work well together to form a reliable system of emergency notification for the volunteer firefighters of the Port Washington Fire Department.
Both systems have their weaknesses and strengths. The voice alerting system is subject to poor atmospheric conditions, low battery power, and may not work at all if there is a power failure while the unit is being recharged at a member's home. However, it has the advantage of providing the location of an emergency and other pertinent information about an incident.
As letters to your newspaper have shown, the horns and sirens are an annoyance to some residents but they are very effective in alerting our members of an emergency and, because the horns are located at firehouses that have emergency standby power, they are unaffected by power outages.
For a six-month period during 2000 the audible alarm system was not used between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. to determine if there would be an adverse effect on response to fire emergencies. During the test period, 2.6 fewer members answered each alarm occurring during those hours. That is a significant number when dealing with a labor intensive, extremely hazardous activity such as fighting a fire.
Being a volunteer fire department we do not have people living at the firehouses 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, unlike the FDNY or the police department that both have career personnel on duty and in touch with dispatchers around the clock, we must depend on an alerting system that can notify our members of an emergency whenever and wherever they are within the district.
The department is currently testing a text-based alerting system that provides even more vital information to responding members. However, it remains to be seen if this system will be reliable enough to enable us to supplant the audible alarms.
The Port Washington Fire Department's primary responsibility is to protect the lives and property of all of the residents of its district from fire and to provide first-class emergency medical service. In order to do this we must have a reliable system to alert our volunteer firefighters of an emergency. The combination of the audible alarm system and the voice alerting system provide the best, most reliable means of notification currently available.
Chief of Department