Emergency response representatives, Allentown officials split on use of siren

Mayor Stuart Fierstein

By Bob Fleming

ALLENTOWN — Borough officials and members of the local first aid squad and fire company have squared off on a Monmouth County Board of Health order to discontinue use of the borough’s warning siren for emergency calls.

Representatives of the Allentown First Aid Squad and the Hope Fire Company attended the Borough Council meeting on March 14 to voice their concerns over recent action taken by the governing body to turn off the warning siren between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The council recently informed the borough’s first-aiders and firefighters that the use of the siren will be completely discontinued on April 4, citing a Monmouth County Board of Health order that states the siren is a health hazard due to an excessive decibel level.

Borough officials maintain the noise level from the siren, which they claim is 50 percent greater than the maximum state standard of 80 decibels, is a potential safety hazard and a danger to hearing.

Emergency response representatives have taken the position that sole reliance on pagers to alert them to emergency calls is insufficient since the pagers have failed to operate on some occasions. They further claim that the controversy over the siren is one of a nuisance issue rather than a health issue.

"The officers and members of the Allentown First Aid Squad want the public to know how important the emergency warning siren is to our ability to respond to an emergency call," said Ruth Ber-tagni, captain of the squad. "I have more than 40 years of service with the squad and we have always relied on the use of the siren. It predates my years of service in Allentown."

According to Bertagni, the siren is a fail-safe measure to alert emergency response personnel that they are needed, especially when pagers are not properly activated from the dispatching unit of the Monmouth County sheriff’s department in Freehold.

"The siren is our back-up for emergency notification and response," Ber-tagni said. "If we can’t continue the use of the existing siren, then we need to find a new one or relocate one or more in other areas of town."


ccording to Mayor Stuart Fier-stein, the siren issue is not a new one in the borough.

"We have been discussing this subject for more than three years," said Fierstein. "Former Councilwoman Lori Sue Mount and I were involved in discussions with the first aid squad and fire company during that time."

Fierstein said the council has held more than 20 meetings since last March and he and a council member have met with representatives of the two groups in separate meetings on three occasions where no one objected to the possible discontinuance of the use of the siren until the order to discontinue use between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. was issued.

"The borough was notified by two different attorneys claiming to represent the first aid squad and the fire company that litigation would be filed against the borough if the siren’s use was discontinued," Fierstein said. "We were operating under a Monmouth County Board of Health order that gave us 30 days to turn off the siren at night, so I sent a letter to the first aid squad and fire company and received no phone calls or written response on the matter."

According to borough officials, the siren was to be turned off between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. commencing on Feb. 26, but an extension was granted after the borough attorney was notified that the matter was subject to potential litigation by an attorney representing one of the objecting groups. A call from another attorney secured an additional extension of time until March 3, when the siren was turned off at night following a poll of council members by the mayor to proceed with that action.

A subsequent meeting was held between borough officials and representatives of the fire company on March 13 with Lester Jargowsky, the county health officer, at which time Jargowsky said his office is not in favor of other towers with sirens being erected, according to Fier-stein.

David Holmes, former president of the Hope Fire Company and longtime member of the organization, told the Examiner he disputes the accuracy and validity of the mayor’s statements on the issue of the siren and the historical account of events leading up to the discontinuance of its use.

"The first report from the Monmouth County Board of Health said the emergency alerting siren is exempt from state noise control law," Holmes said. "It further stated the siren could be moved from the middle of town and the matter could be resolved by individual circumstance."

According to Holmes, representatives of the first aid squad and the fire company met with the mayor last year and believed they had an understanding with him that he would investigate a new siren or the relocation of the present siren behind the municipal complex on North Main Street.

Holmes said the applicable statute governing decibel maximums for sirens sets the upper limit at 98 decibels. The Allentown siren tested at 116 decibels, which is 18 decibels over the permitted maximum and not 50 decibels over the maximum, as stated by the mayor.

He said the first aid squad and fire company acknowledge the use of the siren is regarded as a nuisance by some residents, but said there are options, including lowering the decibel level and relocating the siren and tower to another area in the borough.

"Believing that we had an understanding with the mayor, we were shocked to learn on Feb. 1 that the siren would first be turned off overnight, and then completely turned off on April 4," Holmes said. "The mayor’s order to turn off the siren was done in an outrageous and reckless manner.

"We object to the Board of Health order claiming that for the siren to be a nuisance it must be deemed unnecessary, which we dispute," Holmes said. "The owner must be given a chance to speak in its defense (use of the siren) and the first aid squad and the fire company never had this opportunity and we weren’t contacted by the county health office."


everal members of the first aid squad and fire company informed the mayor and council members that there have been instances where pagers did not go off notifying members to respond to emergency calls between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. since the siren has been turned off.

Holmes said members of the emergency response teams have been working with the county dispatcher’s office in Freehold to resolve the pager problems.

"The pagers have been put on the proper frequency and should be in proper working order," Fierstein said. "The county has put this in writing to us."

But members of the first said squad and the fire company remain unconvinced that the abandonment of the siren is in the best interest of residents and is contrary to their response efforts.

Bertagni and Holmes said they believe there are options to consider to resolve the dispute with the borough regarding the use of the siren.

"Last Saturday, the siren sounded when one of our members was in Woody’s Towne Cafe and the pager did not go off," Bertagni said. "An Allentown council member was present at Woody’s when this occurred, so there can be no dispute of what we have been telling council members that the pagers don’t always operate as expected."

That incident was a test of the response system and pagers and the test failed, Bertagni said.

Fierstein said the overnight discontinuance of the siren should not have a negative impact on response time for first aiders since there normally is an over-night crew of four to five members at the station.

The outcome of the mayor’s meeting on Monday with county health department officials, pager company representatives and county dispatching (radio room) personnel to discuss procedures for emergency notification was not available at press time.

"Our borough volunteers are dedicated to what they do, just as the governing body is dedicated to what they do," said Fierstein. "We need to all be on the same page and work together in the best interest of public safety."

The borough’s emergency warning siren is scheduled to be permanently abandoned on April 4.