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Hear that lonesome — and loud — whistle blow

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Veteran firefighters, form left Fred Ogar, Maurice Tuttle, Larry Lechmanski and Richie Surozenzki, in the radio room of the Center firehouse where the emergency siren is activated.
Veteran firefighters, from left Fred Ogar, Maurice Tuttle, Larry Lechmanski and Richie Surozenzki, in the radio room of the Center firehouse where the emergency siren is activated.

With every firefighter in the Shelter Island Fire Department issued pagers that immediately notify them there’s an emergency, why does the siren go off at the firehouses?

A couple of anonymous phone messages have been left at the Reporter asking for an answer to the question. One caller noted that by living near the Center firehouse, sleep and conversations have been interrupted by blasts from the firehouse. Another caller wanted to know if the entire neighborhood has to be awakened when a pager to a first responder will do the job do?

Fire Chief Will Anderson said it’s not just calls to the newspaper, but people questioning the need for the siren “has become an increasing complaint” to his department.

Some veteran firefighters, a couple still serving as commissioners, met earlier this week at the Center firehouse to talk sirens.

The answer to question is the pager/siren combination is a security system along the lines of the old belt and suspender precautions.

Fire Commissioner Larry Lechmanski said pagers are not infallible. “If you’re moving your lawn you might not hear it,” he said. That also goes for working around any kind of machinery.

Sometimes a firefighter will turn off his pager, such as when attending church services. Pagers also depend on batteries for power, Commissioner Richie Surozenski pointed out, and a firefighter who has forgotten to change batteries might miss call that way. But the siren, or “whistle,” as the firefighters call it, is impossible to miss.

“The complaints are coming mostly from people who have never needed our service,” Chief Anderson said. “Most people are happy we get there as quickly as we do.”

Another reason for sounding the sirens is to make motorists aware that an emergency is in progress.

People playing music loudly, or in conversation with others, will immediately know that there could be emergency vehicles coming toward them or from behind.

The sirens are now generated by electricity, replacing the old compressed air horns of years back that were designed to really get your attention. “They could knock you out of your shorts,” said Mr. Lechmanski, who added he misses the old blasts from the past.

In the old days, when the phone company had an office on the Island in what is now the Shelter Island Florist shop in the Heights, an operator would get an emergency call and sound the alarm, said Fred Ogar, who is still an active member of the department.

Department members  would call for information and then who ever arrived at the firehouse first with the location of the emergency would write it on a blackboard for fellow firefighters coming in.

There were coded sirens at one point, remembered veteran department member Maurice Tuttle, something similar to Morse code, letting the citizen firefighter know the location of the emergency anywhere from the Heights to Ram Island.

The last question: Why, emergency or not, does the siren blow every day at noon — or more likely, 11:55 a.m. — and five p.m. every Friday?

No, it’s not to tell Islanders it’s time for lunch or the cocktail hour is in session to kick off the weekend.

“It’s a just a test to check if the whistle is working,” Mr. Lechmanski said.