After 90 years, Whitefish Siren Goes Silent

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – As a kid, Mike Muldown remembers clearly the sound of the siren, blaring through downtown Whitefish as the grocery store butcher tore out of his store and sprinted down Central Avenue toward the fire hall, removing his apron along the way. Former Whitefish Police Chief Bill Labrie recalls the siren’s 10 p.m. call when he was young, sending him running home to make curfew.

But days of the siren beckoning merchants to fight fires and nights of its signal sending kids off the street are long gone, and never has it been more evident to the city of Whitefish than now.

On May 31, the city instituted a round-the-clock fire and ambulance service, Whitefish Fire Chief Tom Kennelly said, and shortly thereafter, the siren was silenced.

Kennelly said the siren was just too loud for the ears of the full-time staff that now resides in the fire station, approximately 20 feet from the tower housing its many horns.

Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the sound emitted from the Whitefish siren exceeded the noise decibel level allowed, he said, as well as the National Fire Protection Association’s health standard for hearing conservation.

In 2008, Whitefish voted for a tax increase for firemen and ambulances to be available 24 hours a day. Kennelly said this move cuts the response time for a fire by 11 to 13 minutes. Before staffers moved into the fire station, they responded to calls from their homes.

“It’s significant,” he said. “It provides better emergency services for the community.”

The move to hush the siren may make the city safer, and it will certainly be quieter when 10 p.m. rolls around, but longtime residents said that they would miss its familiar blow.

“The beauty of a volunteer fire department was we would be downtown, and all the merchants and volunteer firemen would all come running out of their stores and pell-mell down to the fire house, and you better stand aside (because) they were all sprinting,” Muldown said. “Everybody was part of that community effort, especially the merchants downtown.”

Dave Sipe, who served as Whitefish Fire Chief for 30 years, said he still expects to hear the siren every night at 10 p.m. At one time, a lot of families benefited from the siren’s curfew call, he said, and in the summer most kids had to be in the yard before it went off.

“It was kind of a loose law, but it was good,” he said. “It made our kids safe.”

Sipe said he understands that times have changed.

“I’m sad to see it go,” he said, “but I understand we have to change. I don’t want those guys jumping out of bed.”

Muldown agreed.

“I guess I’m not going to sign a petition or anything to save the siren,” he said. “It’s kind of like the chimes at the Presbyterian Church – it’s been an integral part of Whitefish culture since 1919.”

The siren began blowing its horns to signal curfew in 1919. It was called the “Ding-dong ordinance,” and it originally went off at 9 p.m., according to Whitefish historian Walter Sayre. A few years later, the city changed the alarm to 8 p.m., and in 1944, they bumped it up to its most recent spot at 10 p.m. Before the days of radio pages, the siren went off on fire and ambulance calls.

Sayre doesn’t agree with the city’s decision to turn the 10 p.m. siren off due to OSHA standards.

“I think it’s a bunch of goofyness myself,” he said. Although he admitted the absence of the siren’s blow probably wouldn’t affect the Whitefish community much.

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt the city except us old timers are going to miss it for a while, and then it will fade into oblivion,” he added.

But there is hope for Sayre and the “old timers.” The firefighters will soon be moving into their new station in the Emergency Services Center on Baker Avenue.

“Once we move, the city can revisit whether or not to reinstitute the siren at 10 p.m.,” Kennelly said.

Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns said if the community expresses an interest in turning the siren back on once the firefighters have moved, it would be put to the council for a decision.

With the fate of the old siren up in the air, Sipe said he would hate to see it thrown away, and offered to restore the antique symbol himself.

“I’m retired. I have lots of time,” he said. “I don’t want it to end up for scrap and torn apart. It’s a landmark. Even if it doesn’t work, I’d sure like to see it all cleaned up and repainted and set up, even if it didn’t do anything.”

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