Soundtrack to the Cold War era, the civil defense siren is a hit once again.

August 23, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

It was a big sound in its day - loud, off-key and impossible to dance to - and, with a push from the government, it captured the imagination of a generation.

Then it all but disappeared. Faster than you can say "civil defense," the wail of the outdoor emergency siren, except in a few hyper-vigilant cities like Baltimore, went nearly silent.

Now, a national comeback is under way. Like a has-been rocker, the warning siren - viewed by some as an ear-piercing relic, by others as a reassuring old friend - may be blaring again soon in a city near you.

"They're coming back big time," said Ed Wise, a funeral-home director outside of Atlanta who sells, restores and repairs sirens as a sideline. "Since 9/11, a lot of cities are revisiting their old systems."

More often than not, Wise said, those visits prove fruitless. Decades of neglect have left the old civil-service sirens mute, rusty and clogged with spider webs. "A lot of times, they try to crank them up after 40 years and they just catch on fire," he said.

Not all communities abandoned their sirens when the Cold War ended. Baltimore, for one, saw fit to keep them running to warn the public of emergencies. Civil defense or "air raid" sirens, as they were known, also have continued to blare in cities and counties prone to tornadoes and those with nuclear power and chemical plants.

But in most, sirens went the way of public fallout shelters, forgotten about after the Cold War ended and federal funding to maintain them dried up.

Today, there's a new pool of federal funds - for emergency management - and in a country fearful of terrorism, battered by freaky weather, the shrill moan of sirens can be heard again.

Chicago, Dallas, Little Rock, Oklahoma City and the University of Maryland have all installed or upgraded their outdoor warning systems, often with high-tech models that can broadcast verbal messages.

Many more places are looking at installing new systems, including Wilmington, Del. and Baltimore, which plans to spend $2 million for new, high-tech sirens.

Not everyone is jumping on the siren bandwagon. Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., all opted instead to put their money into quieter, high-tech options, such as software systems that can call thousands of telephone numbers at once and provide a warning message.

To be sure, there are more sophisticated ways to alert the public than there were in 1950, when the civil-defense act was passed and sirens were clamped to the sides of buildings across the country.

Today, citizens can be warned through television (the emergency alert system), telephones (Reverse 911 and similar software), through e-mail, faxes, pagers and weather radios that turn themselves on.

But amid all that technology, the lowly siren - shrill, annoying, old-fashioned and misunderstood as it may be - still has its place, or so at least some cities have concluded.

"There are a lot of ways to alert the public," said Rich McKoy, Baltimore's emergency-management director. "But there is nothing as quick to get its attention as a siren."

The shaded courtyard across the street from the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore is a peaceful spot, and a popular one at lunch hour. A fountain gurgles. Pigeons scavenge. Jurors and office workers sit at tables to eat lunch, talk on cell phones and read books.

But every Monday at 1 p.m. - or thereabouts - the serenity is shattered by what starts as a low-pitched whir and builds into whiny howl that drowns out all other sounds.

On a recent Monday, Stace Jones, a day-care worker from Highlandtown, was sitting on the edge of the fountain with two fellow jurors when the siren, located atop the courthouse, went off. She jammed her fingers into her ears to muffle the noise. Her fellow juror, Teresa Fishback, a warehouse worker from Hampden, jerked and waited 30 seconds to resume her conversation.

"It means it's 1 o'clock," Fishback said. (Actually, it was 1:15, the test was 15 minutes late.) Fishback knew the sirens were tested every Monday, but said she wouldn't know what to do if she heard them go off any other time. "I guess I'd just be confused," she said.

The sirens are even more confusing to visitors, said Leander Lockes, who works a block away at the Tremont Plaza hotel.

"If they're from out of town, they'd get pretty shocked," Lockes said. "Some guests get a look like they're ready to take cover, and you have to explain to them that it's a test."

Doorman James Rupp said he'd never heard the sirens except during tests, and wasn't sure what he would do if he did hear them: "I guess then you put your head between your legs, and kiss your [self] goodbye."

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