A Brief History of the Station Siren
This week, we’re taking a closer look at a fire station staple: the station siren.
Promptly alerting firefighters to an incident can make all the difference in an emergency situation. Over the centuries, these methods have evolved from fire bells through to electrical station sirens, and from the modern pager to advanced radio systems, to call the brigade into action.
Fire bells were an important piece of equipment for firefighting in the nineteenth century. Prior to the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1884, Sydney’s fire protection was carried out by independent groups, such as volunteer fire brigades whose members would respond to their local fire bells. The small bells used by these brigades could not always be heard by the firefighters it needed to reach and so impacted their efficiency in responding to fires.
To resolve this issue, a large turret bell was installed at the Insurance Companies Fire Brigade Station in Bathurst Street, Sydney in 1860. This was to act as a centralised fire alarm system. With the advancements in telecommunications, the need for the fire bell alarm system diminished in metropolitan New South Wales. However, fire bells remained in use throughout New South Wales for a long time after.
In the early twentieth century, electrical station sirens began replacing fire bells as an improved system of communications. The final ‘death’ of the fire bell was noted in 1959 as siren and house bells were installed across the state. Like the bell, the size of the siren demonstrated the distance from which it could be heard. As would be expected, regional and remote locations would require a larger siren to alert their personnel.
For some stations, their siren could be activated remotely by a ‘000’ operator. Mortdale, Rhodes and Merrylands were among the first to receive this equipment and in 1970 it was also extended to Engadine, Avalon and Berowra. The first mention of a pocket pager for volunteer (retained) staff can be traced to 1983, owing to further improvements in communications technology. While some station sirens still remain, their need for use has been minimised over the years.
In a 1956 edition of the New South Wales Fire Brigades Fire Service Journal, the importance of the fire alarm system is highlighted, stating that:
“When a call is received what is the first duty of the first man at the station? Start the motor engine? No! Open the station doors? No! The first duty is to call the other members of the brigade by either ringing their house bells, by sounding the station siren or large bell. We can, and we MUST have all the members MOVING as soon as possible.”
- Fire Service, May-June 1956, p. 8
The Museum of Fire has its very own siren out the front of the main building. Keep an eye out for it next time you visit the Museum!
- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team