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Posted February 27, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Up in the air: Strasburg residents debate fire siren's future

By Joe Beck

A crowd of about 70 packed the Strasburg Town Hall on Wednesday night to sound off about the future of the siren that has been summoning volunteer firefighters to duty for many generations.

Some came to praise it as indispensable for ensuring enough firefighters reach the station to answer every emergency. Others condemned it as a form of noise pollution that drives tourists and prospective businesses from the community and makes life miserable for infants and others in need of sleep.

Fire Chief Jeff Wharton and Fire Department President David Hupp said they would relay what they heard to the department's board, which will decide what, if any, action will be taken.

Wharton and Hupp cited flaws in the countywide telecommunications system as a major reason why Strasburg needs the siren. They said department members outfitted with pagers find them failing to go off in certain locations, including the fire station itself. Hupp said the pagers are the primary means of notifying firefighters when they're needed.

"However, when they fail, that's our only device to get people to run our call," he said of the siren.

Critics of the siren dominated the first part of the 90-minute meeting, but more supporters spoke up in the last 30 minutes.

Several of those calling for change said they didn't understand why fire department officials haven't tried harder to fix the technical problems they said were dogging the county's telecommunications system. What may have been the most heated exchange of the night came between S.J. Mattia and Wharton.

"It's the 21st century. I invite you to join it," Mattia told Wharton and Hupp, adding that many free applications for notifying firefighters on cell phones are readily available.

"I find it strange that a department that's in the business of saving lives isn't more community minded," she said.

Wharton replied that he has been volunteering at the fire department and participating in other activities for many years.

"This is the first time I've seen you here," he said coldly.

Goia Pharo, owner of The Yoga/Pilates Studio at 143 Massanutten St. described the siren as a health issue that disrupts classes she conducts. Her business offers "a unique exercise and relaxation experience," according to its Web page, but that's not the effect when the siren starts blaring, she said.

"A lot of my clients and I, we wake up with headaches," she said.

Some siren supporters called it a community tradition that contributes charm and small town hominess to Strasburg. They also denounced newly arrived residents for trying to impose change on long-time residents.

"I have lived under the siren for nearly 50 years," Shirley Whetzel said. "I love it. Anytime day or night, it has never bothered anybody in our house. I don't know why people have to nit pick about something all the time."

Barbara McDonald denounced, "strangers coming in here, people who have never lived here, and they want it gone."

Allen Peterson, a retiree who moved here from the Chicago area a few years ago, defended recent arrivals and declared he wasn't going anywhere. He said he wasn't questioning firefighters commitment to the community.

"Trying to get rid of the bell is not a slight on the firemen," Peterson said, adding that sometimes "things change."

Suggestions for compromise included a call for reducing the siren's rising and falling volume from eight or nine cycles to three or four. Others spoke of relocating it away from the downtown, perhaps to the water tower.

Wharton said he would consider several of the proposals and relay them to the board. But he and Hupp made clear they want the siren to remain in some form.

"I'm sorry it hurts people," Wharton said in an interview after the meeting. "We [are] going to see what we can do to fix it, but I'm with President Hupp on this. I don't foresee it going away."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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