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City Fire Horn: Tradition Or Unnecessary Irritant?
Fire Horn
The air horn atop Oakdales East G Street Fire Station has recently gone back in service, sounding three times a day and causing some residents to question the need. After being taken out of service over the weekend, officials said they will once again start the daily horn blasts. RICHARD PALOMA/The Leader

There’s a signature sound that has – in recent weeks – reemerged in the city to go off thrice daily from the city’s fire station, only to be silenced again over the weekend. And now, an 11th hour decision could have that fire horn blaring once more but the question for many at this point is: Why? Is it to ring out danger, ring out warning, alert fire department staff, sound to mark certain times of day, and why are so many alerts per day needed?

One thing is certain; the piercing sound, parallel to the rock quarry blast from the Flintstones town of Bedrock that systematically sounds at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., has become an annoyance to some, including neighborhood residents and local businesses that are located blocks from the station.

Living near a fire station gives many a sense of security. Not so for Jan Oakes who for two years has resided in a home a block away from Oakdale’s G Street Fire Station. The alert, which went back in service about six weeks ago, jangles her out of a deep sleep when the foghorn-type horn sounds at 7 a.m.

The horn, located atop the main fire house at 325 E. G St. for over 35 years, is one of a dwindling number of fire horns and whistles in the region and prior to its recent resilience, had been dormant for nearly 10 years. Powered by electricity and compressed air, perched on a pole, it’s aimed toward the center of town. The blaring sound ricochets off buildings and carries for miles.

“When I bought the house a few years ago, I never knew I’d have to deal with this every day,” Oakes said. “There are times when I want to sleep late and God help me if my windows are down. I don’t want to have to listen to that. What purpose does it serve?”

Oakes complained to the city council on Aug. 1 and they couldn’t provide a reason for the return of horn activation. (No reason was known by the city from previous inquiries by The Leader also.)

Oakes now fears it will be something she will have to disclose if she ever sells her home.

“It can be kind of startling,” said Brent Ferguson, who lives on Second Avenue near the station. “It’s kind of an annoyance. If they ever got rid of it, I wouldn’t miss it.”

Local resident Beckie Westfall has lived in town for 38 years and admitted she liked the regular sound years ago, but now working at the Oakdale Joint Unified School District offices just across the street, she said the sounds can be disrupting.

According to Westfall, since the horn has been reactivated, the office has gotten complaints from Sierra View Elementary School that the surprising blast has had an effect on some of the special needs students.

“Don’t be caught in the crosswalk in front of the office when that thing goes off,” Westfall added.

Resident Emily Cutchall is close enough to see the horn atop the fire station from her yard on H Street.

“It’s pretty loud,” Cutchall said. “The first time I heard it a few weeks ago I thought it was a semi-truck sounding its horn on the street in front of me.”

Cutchall said she has gotten used to the scheduled times, but was concerned for those with children that took naps or night workers in the area that slept during the day.

“Can anyone explain why it has to go off at those times?” Cutchall asked.

“The horn was recently restored and is an operational siren that was in use many years ago,” Stanislaus Consolidated Firefighter Valentine Villalobos said on Thursday, Aug 4. “It’s part of the fire department culture to have activations which is why it was restored.”

As far as why it sounds daily, its current function, and why the particular times, Villalobos had no answer.

“We’ve gotten compliments from old-Oakdale people who are glad we brought it back,” said longtime Oakdale firefighter Louie Morua, who is assigned to the station. “Some even say they used the horn times to take their medications. It’s a tradition that old-time citizens appreciate.”

Morua said some firefighters worked with the Oakdale Public Works Department and city worker Troy Long to restore the horn two months ago and got it operational again.

On Friday, Aug. 5, Carissa Higginbotham of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District provided historical information from retired City of Oakdale Fire Chief Michael Botto.

Botto wrote that the horn on the G Street Station was a component of the fire/disaster notification system installed many years ago for the city before the current alerting radio system was developed. The horn blasts were used through the mid-1980s when the fire department transitioned to its current technology. Along with the alerts, there was also a pre-set of daily activations.

“This signal sounded three times a day (7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.) each and every day, unless we forgot to wind the clock on Sundays,” Botto stated in the document. “When the whistle blew at 7 a.m. and you were still in bed you realized you were late for work. You could hardly wait for the noon whistle to break for lunch and the six o’clock sounding signaled the work day was over.”

Botto said the horn activated regularly until approximately 2007 when its pendulum clock quit working. At that time the city started to go through a recession, and the department was struggling financially to keep engines staffed and stations opened.

“We made the decision not to spend any additional funds on the clock or whistle repair,” Botto stated. “It was a loss of a long standing community tradition.”

Botto said he was not sure how the fire team got the whistle up and working again but thanked them for their efforts and success.

“It is a community tradition that needed to be restored and kept in place,” Botto said. “It is one piece of our history that makes Oakdale special.”

With modern communication technology and a “workday” that varies in present day life, many are asking is it still necessary to sound a siren three times a day that can be heard miles away in order to alert the townsfolk of “city tradition” – old ways die hard.

On Friday evening Aug. 5, Stanislaus Consolidated Acting Fire Chief Michael Wapnowski contacted The Leader via email.

“The Sta. 28 horn is a piece of Oakdale Fire Department history that was recently refurbished after members of the community expressed disappointment that the audible alerts had stopped,” Wapnowski wrote. “SCFPD was unaware of complaints about the alarms sounding again until contacted for this story. The horn has since been deactivated until a solution can be reached by working with the City of Oakdale to address the concerns being raised on both sides of the issue.”

On Monday, Aug 8, Stanislaus Consolidated officials met with City Manager Bryan Whitemyer and it was determined that the horn would be turned back on.

“After reviewing the tremendous history the horn has with the community and in respect of its longstanding tradition it was decided to turn the horn back on,” Whitemyer said that evening.