Every Monday at 1

April 29, 1991

In Baltimore you can always tell when it's 1 o'clock on a Monday afternoon. Your ears will tell you. That is when the city's air-raid sirens get tested, 112 noisemakers going off in electronic unison, as they have for about 40 years.

The drill is useful for (a) checking the accuracy of your watch, (b) being on time for 1 o'clock appointments or (c) making sure the sirens are still functioning -- but not much else. The Cold War has been declared dead. Our putative enemy, while still able to throw a deathload of missiles at us, is now judged highly unlikely to do so. Yet every Monday afternoon at 1, this terror-inspiring remnant of the Cold War blares forth.

The ostensible reason is to check if the sirens still work. As your ears can tell you, they do and always have. (In a further check, each siren is visually inspected about once a year.)

The sirens, if heard at some time other than Mondays at 1, are meant to alert us to turn on our radio or television to learn what the problem is. Instead of war, it could be a pending natural disaster. But during their 40-year history, the horns have gone off only once non-test, in 1981, when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer let loose to celebrate the release of the Tehran hostages.

With the widespread use of radio and television, there may not be a real need for the sirens anymore. There is no law stating that they must go off at 1 o'clock, or on Mondays -- or even at all. That is a decision made by the city and probably continued because we have become so used to the noise that we have forgotten we don't have to endure it.

If it is felt that the sirens still might come in handy some day, a less noisome means of checking them might be found. Please.

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