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Waiting for the siren call? In small-town Alberta, the daily wail arrives like clockwork

Residents of some Alberta communities are familiar with a rather noisy notice that it’s noon.

The ear-splitting wails are the sounds of sirens that were installed decades ago. 

Some are civil defence sirens — also known as air raid sirens — that were set up early on during the Cold War. Other sirens were put in by fire departments as a way to summon crews to an emergency. 

“As annoying as it is, it’s a part of everyday life, especially in small towns,” said Sarah McEwan, who works in a store underneath the siren in Thorsby, Alta.

Thorsby, a town of fewer than 1,000 people located about 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, has a civil defence siren, one of more than 120 installed in Alberta communities to warn citizens in the event of a nuclear attack. There were about 1,700 such sirens in Canada by the mid-1960s, according to the Canadian Civil Defence Museum website. 

WATCH | Why the sirens are there and why they blare: 

waiting for the siren call in small town alberta the daily wail arrives like clockwork

Small-town sirens a sign (and sound) of Canadian history

6 hours ago

Duration 4:22

Some Alberta communities are familiar with a daily, noisy notice that it’s noon, while others may find the sound alarming. The CBC’s Lauren Fink visited communities that have had sirens for decades to find out why they’re there and why they blare.

The federal government was behind the push to install the warning systems in communities, said Eric Strikwerda, associate professor of history at Athabasca University. 

“It started out as a program meant to put air raid sirens in cities of 50,000 people or more,” he said. “Later on, they started to install them in smaller centres.”

Summon the brigade

Sirens also became a practical solution for local fire departments. 

In the central Alberta town of Bowden, about 45 kilometres south of Red Deer, a school bell was used to alert firefighters when the town first started exploring the idea of acquiring a siren in 1943. 

Bowden purchased its siren on July 14, 1952. More than 70 years later, its sound still fills the town every day at noon.

In Wabamun, Alta., a hamlet about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, its siren was installed in its current location in 1965 — one year after the establishment of a fire department that would provide protection to the whole municipal district. 

To get firefighters to an incident, residents would call an advertised number that rang at three different phones. When one of the phones was answered, the details of the emergency were written down and the operator would push a button on the side of the phone. 

A gentleman with white hair and wearing a firefighter's dress uniform stands outside in front of a low building clad in aluminum siding.
Bill Purdy stands in front of the siren outside of the former firehall in Wabamun, Alta. (Lauren Fink/CBC)

That would trigger the siren to go off 10 times.

Bill Purdy was on the original fire crew in 1964 and still acts as the auxiliary honorary chief for Parkland Fire Services. He said the siren needed to be tested daily to make sure it was functioning properly. 

“It’s so overwhelming to look back … and just see the changes that have happened in the whole fire services,” said Purdy. 

When Wabamun moved to a pager system in the mid-’70s, the siren was no longer used as the primary alert system.

But nonetheless, it still sounds every day at noon.

When once is not enough

In the village of Holden, about 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, the siren goes off three times a day — at noon, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. 

There was a time that it went off at 8 a.m. as well, said Michele Mulder, a long-time resident of the village.

“As a young family back in the day raising children here in the village, noon was lunchtime, 6 o’clock was supper and 9 o’clock the kids came home,” she said. 

“It was just a really nice kind of reminder for everybody” 

A plain blue building with two white doors, including a man-door and a garage door.
In Holden, Alta., the siren is located at this building, described as the village shop. (David Bajer/CBC)

Some other Alberta communities where the noon-hour siren call continues include Bashaw, Boyle, Valleyview and Warburg.

There are also many towns where the sirens have been silenced. 

“By the mid-1990s, most air raid sirens had largely disappeared,” said Strikwerda, noting that towns had requested the federal government remove them.

Back in Thorsby, there was a complaint in 2013 about the daily bellowing so the town contracted Alberta Health Services (AHS) to do a noise survey. 

The results noted that while the sounds might be annoying, it wasn’t a health hazard. 

“There is no evidence to support the decibel level and duration of noise coming from the Thorsby civil defence siren constitutes a hearing impairment hazard,” stated the report, which was provided to CBC. 

AHS offered recommendations including discontinuing it except for in an emergency, dampening the sound or shortening the duration.

The town’s mayor, Darryl Hostyn, said a plebiscite on the topic resulted in a decision to keep the siren’s daily noon-hour call, which lasts about one minute ��— a short loud burst followed by about 50 seconds as it winds down.

While there is largely no practical use for these sirens now, they are a signal of Canadian history. 

“I guess it’s just another piece of history in a small town that disappears,” said Hostyn.

“It’s just like the go away of the [grain] elevators and everything else,” he added.

“Pretty soon, what’s left?”

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