Why Do Fire Stations Still Use Sirens?

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Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I lived next to railroad tracks and a fire station. Coal-carrying trains, which rumbled through town at all hours of the day and night, could be tolerated. But occasionally I’d be startled awake by the deafening wail of a fire siren.

With the advent of modern technology and advanced emergency notification systems, are sirens still necessary? It isn't just me who wondered this, either; communities across the country have been raising the same question at their local meetings, with some addressing the issue as early as the 1990s. As it turns out, sirens technically aren’t necessary, and whether or not they’re used at all is a local decision, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Although no law mandates their use, many departments have fought to keep them in place, despite complaints from annoyed residents. Chris Hash, of the Easton Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland, wrote in a blog post that sirens are needed because other communication devices, like pagers and cell phones, are not infallible.

“Batteries die, pagers and cell phones are not on the person, and text messaging and smartphone apps like Active 911 are often delayed, with some calls not coming through at all,” Hash wrote. “The National Fire Protection Association recommends that there are at least two reliable means to alert firefighters [of an emergency].”

Plus, there’s no missing or mistaking a fire siren. "When you're out working in the yard on a lawn mower, you can't hear your pager, but you can hear that siren,” George McBride, a member of the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department in Mechanicville, New York—where a debate arose over whether to replace a siren that had been disconnected—told the Times Union in 2014.

In addition to notifying firefighters of an emergency, the siren is also used to let local residents know they should remain alert. Some advocates of the fire siren argue that it lets drivers and pedestrians know they should stay off the roads, and residents with sprinklers are reminded to turn them off to conserve water.

One fire department in Mitchell, Ontario, hadn’t used its fire siren in nearly a decade, but after a firefighter nearly struck a pedestrian while driving to the fire hall, the town decided to start using it again earlier this year. Another department in Calistoga, California, considered purchasing a siren in the aftermath of a deadly wildfire, even though they had gotten rid of it years before in response to noise complaints.

More have joined suit. Duncan Scott, a sales manager at Federal Signal, told the Napa Valley Register in April that departments from all over California have placed orders for sirens after a number of wildfires swept through the state.

Other communities have struck a balance by keeping their sirens, but limiting their usage during hours when most people are sleeping. Of course, in some small towns, sirens still sound daily at noon or sundown—a holdover from a time when sirens were used to let residents know when it was time for lunch or for their children to come inside. Some communities keep this going for the sake of tradition.

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What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

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What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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Can You Really Suck the Poison Out of a Snakebite?

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Should you find yourself in a snake-infested area and unlucky enough to get bitten, what’s the best course of action? You might have been taught the old cowboy trick of applying a tourniquet and using a blade to cut the bite wound in order to suck out the poison. It certainly looks dramatic, but does it really work? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year worldwide, about 81,000 to 138,000 of which are fatal. That’s a lot of deaths that could have been prevented if the remedy were really that simple.

Unfortunately the "cut and suck" method was discredited a few decades ago, when research proved it to be counterproductive. Venom spreads through the victim’s system so quickly, there’s no hope of sucking out a sufficient volume to make any difference. Cutting and sucking the wound only serves to increase the risk of infection and can cause further tissue damage. A tourniquet is also dangerous, as it cuts off the blood flow and leaves the venom concentrated in one area of the body. In worst-case scenarios, it could cost someone a limb.

Nowadays, it's recommended not to touch the wound and seek immediate medical assistance, while trying to remain calm (easier said than done). The Mayo Clinic suggests that the victim remove any tight clothing in the event they start to swell, and to avoid any caffeine or alcohol, which can increase your heart rate, and don't take any drugs or pain relievers. It's also smart to remember what the snake looks like so you can describe it once you receive the proper medical attention.

Venomous species tend to have cat-like elliptical pupils, while non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Another clue is the shape of the bite wound. Venomous snakes generally leave two deep puncture wounds, whereas non-venomous varieties tend to leave a horseshoe-shaped ring of shallow puncture marks. To be on the safe side, do a little research before you go out into the wilderness to see if there are any snake species you should be particularly cautious of in the area.

It’s also worth noting that up to 25 percent of bites from venomous snakes are actually "dry" bites, meaning they contain no venom at all. This is because snakes can control how much venom they release with each bite, so if you look too big to eat, they may well decide not to waste their precious load on you and save it for their next meal instead.

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