By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Overturning a decision made only 13 days earlier, the Cold Spring Village Board voted 3-1 on Tuesday night (Sept. 7) to increase the village fire siren’s twice daily tests from one-half second to four seconds, boosting the decibel level as well, leaving the full emergency blast at 40 seconds.
Short one member with the absence of Trustee J. Ralph Falloon, a firefighter who proposed the half-second test on Aug. 25, the board acted on a motion made by Trustee Charles Hustis, who said he regretted his vote two weeks earlier favoring the half-second, low “growl” for the siren. Trustee Bruce Campbell also switched his vote from two weeks ago, to back the four-second shriek. Trustee Airinhos Serradas, who opposed the half-second option, also voted for the four-second blast, leaving Mayor Seth Gallagher alone in supporting continuation of the half-second “growl.” The move brings with it a village expense to recall the siren company to reprogram the siren. Gallagher has estimated the cost of a visit by the firm at $375.
Approximately 60 supporters and critics of the longer blast packed the village hall meeting room and spilled out into the hall, with impassioned statements coming from both sides of the aisle — literally, given the space separating the two banks of chairs. Throughout much of the discussion, animosity seemed to bounce off the walls, as scowls covered faces, angry shouts broke out from time to time, and Mayor Gallagher issued periodic reminders to everyone to be orderly and not talk at once. A siren supporter could be heard sobbing, while two others frequently broke into their own conversation, competing with whoever held the floor at the moment.
Cold Spring Fire Company President Michael Bowman acknowledged during prior board discussions of the siren that a½-second “growl” test would be sufficient for testing. Tuesday he contested the right of the Village Board, not the fire company, to determine the length of the test, raising a question that firefighters posed on Aug. 25. “We’re the ones that pay for it,” Gallagher again responded.
Siren critics have presented the board with a mass of information, including data from the siren manufacturer and federal government stating that emergency sirens need only be tested once a month, at a subdued tone — not twice a day at a loud blast. The four-second test is 118 decibels; the half-second test — which actually lasts longer than that, though not at a noise peak — is 102 decibels, which despite the 16-point span represents a 10-fold decrease in affect on the listener. Overall, the debate focused far less on safety requirements or hearing health than preference by some villagers to retain the siren’s loud test voice primarily because they see it as a village tradition.
Siren supporter Donna Nameth said she had circulated a petition favoring the four-second tests and told signers “that the siren was the test for the emergency system. They said they realized that but that wasn’t what was important to them; it’s that they grew up with the siren. It’s a part of Cold Spring. They miss it. They all asked me why the board and the mayor have done this. They wanted to know why one woman could cause so much trouble and change things, something that’s always been.” She apparently referred to Kathleen Foley, who spearheaded the effort against the siren’s volume.
“It bothers me deeply that I have to stand here and come to two meetings to fight for something that I have always had, because someone who moved here four years ago or two years ago or six years ago just doesn’t happen to like it,” said Elizabeth Monroe, another siren fan and long-time resident. She cited the work of the emergency ambulance corps and fire department. “They volunteer to serve this community. A Cold Springer is here, it’s in your hearts,” she told the audience. “I’d be curious to know how many of you have volunteered?”
At least a half dozen of the siren critics, including Foley, have served as volunteers, or do so currently, with the village or local organizations benefitting the disadvantaged, handicapped, environment, or local history. Unlike firefighters and ambulance corps members, involved in life-threatening activities, they accrue no credits toward pensions, a form of deferred pay. “We’re all here, we’re all Cold Springers,” Foley said. “We’re going to be together for a long time. So we’ve got to work together.”
Jennifer Zwarich, advocated tolerance for those affected by the siren. “There is a certain percentage of the town suffering. It isn’t one woman,” she said. “I can’t believe there are so many people who hold onto the loudness of the siren, that part of the tradition. I understand you want to protect the tradition, but do you really want to have other people suffering so you can hear it louder?” She praised the work of the firefighters but asked that they “consider everybody in this town because part of your pensions are paid by our taxes.” Living near the corner of Route 9D (Morris Avenue-Chestnut Street) and Route 301 (Main Street), she said she can hear the growl test — several blocks from the siren.
Thomas Ambrose, a resident of Paulding Avenue, said he had attended numerous Village Board meetings during the times the siren was defunct in recent years. “There was no discussion from the public in any of the public meetings about the siren. Why didn’t it come up?” he wondered, suggesting that when the siren wasn’t functioning, “people did not have a problem,” despite the professed fondness for it.
Billy Fields, who backs limits on siren usage and volume, pointed out the restricted range of the siren. “Most of the village doesn’t hear the siren,” negating its role as a clock heralding noon and 6 p.m., he said. “I would like to sound the hours. I would just like to find a better way to do it.”
Lillian Moser, a fire company member and siren supporter, noted that from her house on Main Street, opposite the firehouse, “I barely hear it when there’s a fire alarm.” The “growl” test is all but impossible to hear, she added.
“I think the half-second test sounds like something sick,” Trustee Bruce Campbell agreed, though he expressed his unhappiness at being the likely swing vote, before the tally. “Four seconds to me really isn’t a problem,” he said. He added that he had conducted considerable research on sirens since the last vote, querying other communities, with the conclusion that “you’re not going to be able to keep everybody happy.” A few minutes later he voted for the four-second test.