Volunteer firefighters, pagers, and sirens: when volunteerism becomes domination

This is the story of a siren. But of course it is more than the story of a siren. It is a story about what Neil Postman, writing in Technopoly, describes as “the triumph of technique, with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones.”

I first noted the Graton siren, used to summon volunteer firefighters, in this blog last October, on an evening when there had been numerous alarms. I suspected a crank caller, whose reward would include, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, an “alarm [that] can be heard from Sebastopol to Freestone.”

More recently, a group of Graton citizens has filed suit, because

“We believe the siren is simply technologically unnecessary,” said Danelle Jacobs, a Graton resident for 13 years whose house is within 2 miles of the station. “We are used to it, but I certainly hear it. This is more of a tradition issue and not a public-safety issue.”

The Press Democrat coverage, which I unfortunately relied upon in my earlier posting, leaves the impression that Graton’s siren is an anachronism, even given areas of Sonoma County with far more challenging terrain than that of Graton. In this discussion on WaccoBB (a local on line discussion forum), at least some firefighters seem a lot faster with insults than explanations as to why pagers are inadequate. They just repeat, as if it were a mantra, that they are unreliable. From the Press Democrat, speaking of the siren,

“It’s the most reliable way of alerting volunteers. It is the most dependable,” said Bill Bullard, who is deputy chief of the all-volunteer department. . . .

Bullard said the siren is necessary to reliably notify volunteers in the hilly West County area where cell phone reception is spotty and pagers do not always go off.

“Pagers are consistently inconsistent,” Bullard said. “Pagers work, but not 100 percent. “When you are talking about an emergency call, if someone is not breathing or their house is on fire, it is not enough.”

But it is hard to fault those who challenge the siren’s necessity, as the Press Democrat story continues, explaining that

Nearly all Sonoma County fire departments discontinued sirens years ago, relying on pagers, phone texting and even fax machines.

New digital pagers and rebroadcasters, repeaters and microwaves can reach all but the most remote areas, said Ken Reese, the Sonoma County dispatch communications manager.

“As a whole it is very reliable,” Reese said. “It has been my experience that it is not very often we get phone calls that say our pagers are not going off. If it does, a lot of times it is human error.”

Despite the fact that sleep deprivation is recognized internationally as a form of torture, the firefighters and their supporters dismiss the near-daily suffering of parents with colicky babies and anyone who is ill or elderly and can’t just “roll over and go back to sleep.” Wrote firefighter Bob Rozett under the pseudonym, “Tezor,”

As I understand, this suit is being pressed by 7 people, some of which are couples, so as I said, I believe we out number them. I also had this conversation with others who disagreed with me, I am sorry about those people who can’t roll over and go back to sleep, the unhappy baby and parent(I do know about these), and those of you just like to complain when the siren goes off. However emergency trumps comfort, and community trumps an individuals selfishness.

Leave it alone, it isn’t going away without a fight, and if it’s in court, thanks for taking $ from our VOLUTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT and wasting it on responding to your (my opinion) selfish wants. There are people all over who for their own interests, cause many districts to spend much needed $ on legal fees that should be used for training and equipment for response… If you aren’t ashamed of yourself, you should be.

This firefighter uses his status as a volunteer to claim a special authority to speak for the community at large and to place himself beyond challenge. Yet despite the fact that firefighters have a legitimate need for better pager service which is of far greater urgency than, say, that of the ordinary consumer, they will not use this putative authority to demand better service from pager companies. So it appears that this authority is useful only against ordinary citizens.

It took quite some time in the WaccoBB discussion for anyone to offer any explanation of the problem with pagers at all. Finally, Gregory Smith, a photographer posting under the pseudonym “Imagery,” wrote

Here’s a little something I dug up for you regarding mountains and microwave frequencies (yes, cell phones/pagers run on 800/900 and 1800MHz MICROWAVE FREQUENCIES). I’m guessing you’re intelligent enough to understand a little bit about basic elementary school topography, and might even be intelligent enough to look at a topographic map and see the elevation lines. If you were to do that, you would notice that (for the most part) Santa Rosa is pretty flat. I know, you’re going to want to argue semantics and ask about Fountaingrove and that little (well-developed urban area) region which has some elevation changes. The City of Santa Rosa has a huge infrastructure of radio networks, and being in an urban area, has the attention of AT&T (sort of) and Verizon who provide very thorough cellular and paging coverage. It’s in their best interests to serve the major population center of the area.
You would also notice that for the most part, this “valley” in which most of Santa Rosa (160′ above sea level) resides also contains Rohnert Park(106′), Cotati(110′), Sebastopol(78′), Windsor(118′), and Healdsburg(106′)

Personally, I believe it is YOU who wants to create the noise around here – and as far as selfish, I don’t see how the needs of the few (people who oppose the siren) outweigh the needs of the many (people whose lives/property have been saved) by the courageous men and women who VOLUNTEER SELFLESSLY to help their community.

That radio signals have difficulty penetrating mountains is not at issue. Graton is a very small town which lies mostly to the east of a creek in a valley lined on the east and west sides by gentle hills that would pose no difficulty at all if pager signals originated from properly placed antennae. So despite firefighters’ apparent expectations that variations in elevation should be persuasive, they aren’t, as Smith effectively acknowledges in citing Fountaingrove. The problems here lie with corporate decisions about the level of service to offer and with anyone who would challenge the authority of volunteer firefighters.

Apparently, the only other alternative to the siren would be to be to go to a professional department which would keep the station staffed at all times. Besides the additional assessment on local homeowners, the means established for paying for fire protection in Sonoma County may appear rife with inequity. Controversy arose earlier this year over a proposal to raise property tax assessments for the Russian River Fire Protection District. In another district, I understand that Bodega Bay homeowners pay through the nose for services rendered to tourists including, apparently, foolhardy abalone fishermen who get into trouble in the treacherous surf. At the other extreme, at least at one time, I am told, a community along the Russian River had no fire department at all and was freeloading off of neighboring communities.

These problems illustrate shortcomings of an exchange economy, in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to fairly allocate the cost of an essential service, particularly when that cost may be increasing. When firefighters volunteer their services, they reduce the cost not only to homeowners but to businesses, even businesses which increase the hazards to which firefighters must respond. That reduced cost amounts to a subsidy for those businesses, increasing their net profits.

That subsidy takes on an additional importance as the apple orchards for which Sebastopol (the nearest town of any size) is known are ripped up and replaced with vineyards. With vineyards come wineries and wine tasting rooms. I’m told a series of these are planned for the Highway 116 (also known as Gravenstein Highway, for the apples) corridor, which includes Sebastopol, Graton, and Forestville, and leads to the Russian River. While responsible wineries will take precautions to limit the possibility of drunk driving, their sheer number will mean that competition, potentially leading to excess “generosity,” will exist between them. Wineries will be profiting from an increased risk of accidents that firefighters, volunteer or otherwise, will have to respond to.

To point this out, however, is apparently to challenge volunteer firefighters’ participation in our culture. If you find that mysterious, rest assured, so do I.

Graton Fire Chief Bullard writes in part,

Fire chiefs from Occidental and Bodega Bay have both stated their challenges with pagers. I know that Camp Meeker has a siren, but I have not asked their chief about issues. There are other volunteer departments with sirens… I have never done a poll as there are probably 30+ just in Sonoma County. Forestville Fire decreased siren use as paid staffing increased. As Graton has reached 500 calls annually, making it the busiest all-volunteer department in Sonoma County, I can imagine a similar transition for Graton Fire as well. Fortunately, we have enough volunteers to get the job done and have not had to ask for paid firefighters to date.

Bullard’s imagined transition to a professional fire department may indeed be the ultimate outcome.

One thought on “Volunteer firefighters, pagers, and sirens: when volunteerism becomes domination

  • December 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Big debate always raging in my surrounding communities about use of sirens. Pagers are good to alert volunteers but sirens have always been synonymous for alerting the wider public about an impending bushfire. Many ‘tree changers’ complain about the interruption of their sleep on a Sunday morning when sirens are traditionally tested, but public bash lash has meant sirens are now being tested again in some towns. Sirens were defunct and not used in many towns during the 2009 Black Saturday fires (Victoria, Australia.) Sometimes modern technology fails – mobile phones alerts too late/out of range, radio broadcasters get the news in hindsight and can’t warn small communities adequately.

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