A signature sound that rings out danger, rings out warning, and sometimes jangles people out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night will remain part of Whitman.
After putting the future of the town’s historic fire horn to a modern test, Whitman Fire Chief Thomas J. Grenno has decided to keep it.
Grenno last year received complaints — mostly from newer residents — who asked him to get rid of the horn, which they consider a public nuisance. So he turned to social media to gather public opinion and found that “a vast majority” wanted the horn to stay.
A post on the Fire Department’s Facebook page drew 400 “likes” and 100 comments, almost all in favor. (One person even encouraged the chief to run for president.) A survey on the town’s website also showed most in favor of keeping it.
“It’s history. It’s tradition, but more importantly, it’s still a useful tool,” Grenno said in an interview.
In fact, the support for the horn was at times so vehement that several people who had complained about the horn were urged on the department’s Facebook page to get out of town.
The horn, located atop the fire station at 56 Temple St. for at least 70 years, is one of a dwindling number of fire horns and whistles in the region. Whitman’s can go off at any time of day or night and is “very loud,” said Grenno, who added that it sounded about 380 times last year.
‘It’s history. It’s tradition, but more importantly, it’s still a useful tool.’
Even in this day of cellphones, radios, and pagers, the horn remains a great additional way of letting firefighters and residents know when there is a fire, and for recalling off-duty personnel in the case of multiple emergencies, Grenno said.
Businessman Richard Rosen, whose office is next door to the firehouse, said he’s thrilled the Fire Department is keeping the horn.
“I grew up with that horn. It’s part of the fabric of the community,” Rosen said. “For me, it’s more sentimental.”
Rosen said he vividly remembers it sounding one day while he was walking from his father’s garage near the fire station toward the center of town.
“I took a step off the curb at the same time the fire whistle blew and I must have jumped two feet in the air,” Rosen said.
He recalls that in 1983, the town was experiencing a string of arsons and the horn drew people together.
“I had just been elected to the Board of Selectmen. It was a very hot night . . . in August. I was lying in bed, and all of a sudden the fire alarm started to blow and blow,” Rosen said, adding that the Dyer School was on fire.
“I got up and went to the fire scene . . . for the rest of the night,” he said. “Over the years there have been many instances like that. There’s no way to describe the feeling you have for the people who are standing there watching their home or business go up in flames.”
Rosen said it’s hard to explain to people new to town what the horn really means to those who have lived there a long time.
Temple Street resident Carol Hayes has lived in town for 50 years and admitted she liked the sound better when she lived on Winter Street, on the other side of town.
“It was a kind of nice, nostalgic sound then,” Hayes said.
When she moved next to the fire station about two years ago, she “learned early on” to keep her door and windows closed to keep the sound from startling her. She heard of a neighbor who had fallen asleep on her couch, but fell onto the floor when the horn went off.
“I think if it wasn’t there I’d kind of miss it,” Hayes said, comparing it to a train whistle that becomes part of the daily sounds of life.
The low-timbred horn can be heard for well over a mile during clear weather with no wind. Until recent years, it would blast in patterns that identified the locations of red fire boxes around town. Residents kept guide books in their homes and could look up the location of a fire based on the number of blasts.
Grenno said he dropped the fire box system since it was plagued by problems with its antiquated copper wiring and needed more than $100,000 in repairs.
Fire horns and whistles once were common, but most towns around the region have stopped using theirs, such as Abington, where Fire Chief John M. Nuttall said his department discontinued its whistle several years ago.
“I think people were thanking us when we stopped using it,” Nuttall said, adding that alarms there went off at two stations.
The whistle was pretty “antiquated technology” and was starting to need maintenance, Nuttall said. In addition to calling out fires and call boxes, it was used to signal days when school was canceled.
He added that whistles and horns were especially important when departments were made up largely of volunteers who needed to be called in from businesses and farms.
“We’ve been through a lot of technology since then,” Nuttall said.
But some other towns have kept their horns.
Rockland Fire Chief Scott Duffey said his town’s fire horn goes off an average of once a day to recall manpower, but he has not received any complaints.
He said he does know of a family from the Midwest who were startled because it resembled the horn used for tornado warnings. “It’s real loud,” Duffey said. “You’re like a cat clinging to the ceiling if you don’t know it’s going to go off.”
In East Bridgewater, the fire horn that was more of a tradition than an actual alarm has been silent for several months, simply because it’s broken.
“It’s so old that we can’t get a part for it,” said Christine White, the Fire Department’s administrative assistant, adding that ironically they likely could find one on the Internet.Elaine Cushman Carroll can be reached at elaine_carroll@