Civil Defense Siren

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Chrysler-Bell Victory Siren

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Chrysler's Air-Raid Siren Hits New High In Sustained Mechanical Noise Making

The Chrysler-Bell Victory Siren was conceived by the Chrysler Motor Company and Bell Telephone Laboratories and began being distributed in 1942. This is an interestingly antiquated idea due to the fact that a communication company is literally collaborating with manufacturer of high power engines to create a high-reach communication system. According to the company's own specifications the siren weighs 5,543 pounds, uses a v-8 engine and costs $5,500. According to The Washington Post the siren registered a high of 138 decibels, 200 decibels will break your eardrums.(1) Although during certain tests the claims that the siren could be heard up to 25 miles away fell short, there is no doubt that this behemoth machine epitomizes the qualities and intentions of the civil defense siren. The main objectives of the civil defense siren is to alert, grab attention in a jarring way, to express the immediacy of danger, and to span the reach of this message as far as possible. While the Victory Siren is quite capable of fulfilling these objectives, especially in comparison to other models, it falls short in its ability to convey its message in a truly widespread manner. In this sense, television and radio far outdo the Victory siren. However, an interesting observation to make is that while the government is currently able to reach every household with a television or radio using the Emergency Broadcast system, the ability to reach those not ‘tuned in’ has died along with the civil defense siren.
Video Links:
Robbie Coltrane and Don Garlits demonstrate a Chrysler-Bell Victory Siren in their Garage; June 5, 2007

From Universal Newsreel; Produced from 1929 - 1967; Presented twice a week in local movie theaters; September 23, 1956; (Civil Defense Coverage Starts at 1:17)

The Audile Mayor La Guardia

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New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia

At the beginning of his time in office it might seem ironic that Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia of New York City would become such an advocate for the use and regular testing of civil defense sirens. During 1935, his first year as mayor, LaGuardia championed the passing of a noise abatement ordinance.(2) Not only would this ordinance prohibit unnecessary noise making between the hours of 11 P.M. and 7 A.M., according to The Times he was also planning to schedule noiseless days, during which anyone creating unnecessary noise would be ticketed. This seems a bit drastic but the noise that can be generated in a densely populated area can clearly become overwhelming at times. This may have especially been the case for the vast immigrant population, and new arrivals to the city, having grown up in rural environments. The fact that noise wasn’t traditionally such a large part of people’s lives may have contributed to the elevated hype that surrounded civil defense sirens.

Not much later, in 1941, a controversy would begin involving the installation and rituals surrounding a civil defense project. Civil defense wardens were publicly defended by Mayor LaGuardia, despite the fact that, according to The New York Times, night time protection caused great problems because wardens were not residing over the districts in which they lived.(3) In the same article The Times quotes La Guardia “Modern warfare means that every man, woman and child is exposed to the attacks of the enemy in undefended cities." The growing fear of atomic attacks on the United States were undoubtedly factors on such wide spread popularity of adopting civil defense systems. New York States defense system included the employment of air raid wardens by the police department, additional fire fighters, and civilian volunteer units which would function as everything from nurses, to emergency water/gas shut off attendants, to motorcycle couriers. The call for volunteers quickly returned 60,000 applicants.(4) These kind of numbers indicate the immediacy of the nuclear threat in the minds of the general public.

However, despite the obvious immediacy that people felt for the need of civil defense systems, people would soon become annoyed by regularly held siren drills. After a friendly aircraft had been sited but could not be identified, in the early hours of the morning on September 9, 1942 the sirens were sounded, only to be cleared a minute later. According to The Washington Post, “In one apartment building where the warden went pounding on doors, crying, ‘Enemy planes overhead!’ somebody else shouted, ‘Take it easy; it’s only LaGuardia showing off again.’”(5) This really brings to attention the actual noise that the medium creates and the annoyance it could generate in an urban setting. Especially when regular drills were held, the medium lost its ability to communicate its message, which was intended to be ‘emergency’. It had to rely on radio and television stations to broadcast that the alarm was in fact, not a test. This inherent flaw in the medium is another key factors of why it is no longer in widespread use.

The Civil Defense Siren in Cold War Culture

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This Prevents This; From Federal Electric Company Brochure; 1942

The Civil Defense Siren was born in the days of World War II, however it would really flourish, so to speak, in the subsequent Cold War. Civil Defense Sirens became part of peoples daily lives. Regular newspaper coverage on what to do in case of an alert as well as federally distributed pamphlets were quite common. For example an article from The New York Times gives the following instructions for a scheduled siren drill, “Remain calm; walk to the nearest shelter area; obey instructions of police, auxiliary police, air-raid wardens and other civil defense personnel. If driving park your cars, remove keys and take shelter; if on a bus take shelter as soon as it stops; if in a building, obey building defense regulations. Remain calmly in the shelter until the “all clear” –a series of three one-minute blasts, two minutes apart—about fifteen minutes later.”(6) Brochures containing images with captions like “This Prevents This” were sensational and often seemed to promote the sale of sirens more than safety. This is an interesting fact to consider, that despite the programs being government run, these machines were still built by outside companies with the intention to make money. So although the civil defense siren, often wants to appear to be part of the governments system to protect, it essentially is an outside medium, which is not inherent to the system.

The Air Raid Siren in Contemporary Popular Music

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Still from: Beyonce - Ring The Alarm; Music Video SONY BMG Music Entertainment; Released August 16, 2006

Although, I know of many pieces of Contemporary Popular music which use the Air Raid Siren sound, I found it quite difficult to find any scholarly research on this phenomenon. This is probably due to its rather recent nature. For this reason I have chose to focus exclusively on the 2006 single released by American recording artist Beyonce, title ‘Ring The Alarm.’ What’s interesting about “Ring the Alarm” is the fact that the song takes the trend of using the air raid effect (usually only found in the begging of such songs) and increases the sounds prominence ten-fold. The sound not only appears solo in the introduction, it also recurs for the chorus’ and provides lyrical inspiration. So what about Beyonce makes one desire to sound a Civil Defense Siren? Why would this sound which was so frightful to most and such an annoyance to some, now get a starring role in a Top 20 single? There is nothing new about reapropriation of sounds in music. Sounds are often imitated or copied from musicians in other genres and other eras. I think what’s interesting is the service that the sound provides the song. It's ‘loudness’ embodies the message of female empowerment which the lyrics and artists persona drive home. What was initially created for the very practical purpose of delivering sound a far distance is now being used in an unintended way, to convey an ideal.


The Chrysler-Bell Victory Siren:

 (1)"Little Fuss Results From Blast Of 4-Ton Siren at Fort Belvoir. " The Washington Post (1877-1954)  [Washington, D.C.] 6  Sep. 1952,23. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post
(1877 - 1991). ProQuest.

The Audile Mayor La Guardia:

 (2)"'Noiseless Nights' Decreed Here By La Guardia During October :Auto Horn Tooters and Other Offenders Will Be Reprimanded by Police -- Series of 'Noiseless Days,' Then a Drastic Ordinance Against
Nuisance Will Follow.. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 11 Aug. 1935,1-2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest.
(3)"Mayor Defends Air Raid Wardens, Orders Complaints Investigated :LA GUARDIA BACKS AIR RAID WARDENS . " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 31 Dec. 1941,1-2. ProQuest Historical
Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest.
(4)"New York's Program. " Wall Street Journal (1889-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 29 Jul 1941,3-3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Wall Street Journal (1889 - 1990). ProQuest.
(5)"On False Alarms. " The Washington Post (1877-1954) [Washington, D.C.] 9 Sep. 1942,8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1991). ProQuest.

The Civil Defense Siren in Cold War Culture:

 (6)"What to Do in Raid Test Set for 8:30 A. M. Today. " New York Times (1857-Current file)  [New York, N.Y.] 13  Dec. 1952,23-23. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004).
ProQuest. (7)Federal Electric Company Brochure; 1942.