Civil defense siren
A civil defense siren (also colloquially referred to as an air raid or tornado siren) is a mechanical or electronic device (modern-day sirens are electrically powered whether they are electronic or electro-mechanical) for generating sound to provide warning of approaching danger and sometimes to indicate when the danger has passed. In some areas in the United States, civil defense sirens may sound in the late morning and early afternoon on a regular basis.
Initially designed to warn of air raids in World War II, they were adapted to warn of nuclear attack and of natural phenomena such as tornadoes. The generalized nature of the siren led to many of them being replaced with more specialized warnings, such as the Emergency Alert System.
In a mechanical siren, sound is generated by a motor driving a shaft with a special turbine (known as a rotor or chopper) on one or both ends. It will have only one fan if it is a single-toned siren, while if it is a dual-toned siren, it will have either one fan on each end or two fans in a stack on one end, with one fan having a few more blades than the other. Around each fan—or chopper or rotor—is a housing with a number of rectangular holes to match the number of fan blades. This housing is known as a stator. The end of each blade has a plate whose shape is matched with the rectangular holes and circular curve of the stator. The blades draw air in at the end and force it out through the slots in the housing in rapid pulses, as the plates on the end of the blades interrupts that flow, which is what produces the sound. Some mechanical sirens, such as the Federal Signal Thunderbolt series, also employ compressed air that is blown at the rotor to supercharge the sound from the siren, which causes the sound to be sharper and much louder than it would be with the chopper and stator alone.
Modern sirens can reach up to, but not commonly, 135 decibels when measured 100 feet (30 m) away from the siren; the loudest confirmed siren ever produced was the Chrysler Air Raid Siren, producing 138 dB at 100 feet. The Chrysler Air Raid Siren used a 180 hp V-8 Hemi engine to drive the siren and weighed 5543 lb. Most sirens are mounted on poles that are usually around 30 to 50 feet off the ground, on top of buildings, or sometimes on tall structures, such as water towers.
Some newer sirens have the ability to broadcast voice messages over large areas, depending on winds and noise. These electronic sirens differ from electromechanical sirens in that they rely on a series of large loudspeakers to produce sound. There is some question about the ability of a system of electronic sirens to broadcast a voice message with sufficient intelligibility over long distances – not only does the sound echo off some surfaces, the sound could have multiple arrival times from widely spaced siren sites.
Historical warning tones
During World War II for a "Red Warning" of approaching danger, the siren produced a single continuous tone that rose and fell regularly between one high and one low (All Clear). Another alternating tone signified a "take cover" warning for immediate danger.[clarification needed]
After World War II, two further warnings were introduced for nuclear attack – a "Grey Warning" indicated approaching nuclear fallout with a 2½ minute warning of short steady tones divided by equal periods of silence, the silence being created with a manual shutter or electric solenoid.
A "Black Warning," also for manual sirens, was either a Morse code 'D' (— · ·) or three quick tones, indicating imminent danger of fallout.
These signals are described in the video Civil Defence Bulletin - No. 5.
The U.S. used several other sets of warning tones, which varied over time, by government structure, and by manufacturer.
The initial alerts promulgated during World War II were the Alert Signal (a 3-5 minute steady continuous siren tone) and the Attack Signal (a 3-5 minute wail siren tone, or series of short tone bursts on devices incapable of wavering, such as whistles).
The Victory Siren manual stated that when manual generation of the warbling tone was required, it could be achieved by holding the Signal switch on for 8 seconds and off for 4 seconds.
In 1950, the Federal Civil Defense Administration revised the signals, naming the alert signal "Red Alert" and adding an all-clear signal, defined as three one-minute steady blasts, with two-minutes of silence between blasts.
Beginning in 1952, the "Bell and Lights" Air Raid Warning System, developed by AT&T, was made available to provide automated transmission of an expanded set of alert signals:
- Red Alert (attack imminent)
- Yellow Alert (attack likely)
- White Alert (all-clear)
- Blue Alert (undefined)
The Yellow Alert and Red Alert signals correspond to the earlier Alert Signal and Attack Signal, respectively, and the early Federal Signal AR timer siren control units featured the "Take Cover" button labeled with a red background, and the "Alert" button labeled with a yellow background. Later AF timers changed the color-coding, coloring the Alert button blue, the Take Cover button yellow, and the "Fire" button red (used to call out volunteer fire fighters), thus confusing the color-coding of the alerts.
In 1955, the Federal Civil Defense Administration again revised the warning signals, altering them to adapt to deal with concern over nuclear fallout. The new set of signals were the Alert Signal (unchanged) and the Take-Cover Signal (previously the Attack Signal). The All-Clear signal was deleted because leaving a shelter while fallout was present would be hazardous.
Current warning tones
Usage in the United States
Sirens began to replace bells for municipal warning in the early 1900s, but became commonplace following America's entry into World War II. Most siren models of this time were single-tone models which often sounded almost an octave higher in pitch than their European counterparts. Dual-tone sirens became more common in the 1950s, but have been used in some areas since about 1915. During the Cold War, standard signals were used throughout the country for civil defense purposes, referred to as "alert" and "attack." Volunteer fire departments generally used a different siren signal. Many towns, especially in California and New England, used coded air horns or diaphones for fire calls and reserved sirens for civil defense use.
Today, signals are determined by state and local authorities and can vary from one region to another. The most common tones produced by sirens in the United States are "Alert" (Steady) and "Attack"(Wail). Other tones include Westminster Chimes (commonly used for the testing of electronic sirens), Hi-Lo, Whoop, Pulse, and Air Horn and fast wail.
The U.S. Federal standard regarding air raid signals is defined in FEMA's Outdoor Warning Systems Guide, CPG 1-17, published on 01-March-1980, which describes the Civil Defense Warning System (CDWS) and its warning signals. The language was slightly revised by FEMA's National Warning System Operations Manual, Manual 1550.2 published 2001-03-30:
- Attack Warning—A 3 to 5 minute wavering tone on sirens or a series of short blasts on horns or other devices. The Attack Warning signal means detection of an actual attack or accidental missile launch. Take protective action immediately. The Attack Warning will be repeated as often as deemed necessary by local government authorities to obtain the required response by the population, including taking protective action related to the arrival of fallout. This signal will have no other meaning and will be used for no other purpose.
- Attention or Alert Warning—A 3 to 5 minute steady signal from sirens, horns, or other devices. Local government officials may authorize use of this signal to alert the public of peacetime emergencies. Besides any other meaning or requirement for action as determined by local government officials, the Attention or Alert signal will indicate to all persons in the United States, "Turn on your radio or television and listen for essential emergency information".
- A third distinctive signal may be used for other purposes, such as a local fire signal.
- No all-clear signal is defined by either document.
- CPG 1-17 recommends that a monthly test be conducted, consisting of the steady Attention signal for no more than one minute, one minute of silence, followed by the Attack signal for no more than one minute.
- A "growl test" signal is described conceptually by CPG 1-17 for use when a siren must be tested more often than once a month. This is typically a 1-second burst of sound to verify the proper operation of the siren without causing a significant number of people to interpret the test as an actual alert.
While the tones used vary in some locations, the most common tone, the "Alert," is widely used by municipalities to warn citizens of impending severe weather, particularly tornadoes. This practice is nearly universal in the Midwest, where intense and fast moving thunderstorms occur frequently. The sound of the "Alert" is a steady continuous note. In seaside towns, the "Alert" may also be used to warn of a tsunami. It should be noted that, in the case of rotating sirens (such as the formerly-common "thunderbolt"), while an "Alert" signal will produce a steady tone from the siren itself, those hearing it will detect a rising-and-falling tone as the direction of the horn changes.
The "Attack" tone is the iconic, rising-falling sound of an air raid or nuclear attack, frequently heard in war movies. It was once reserved for imminent enemy attack, but is today sometimes used to warn of severe weather, tsunamis, or even fire calls, depending on local ordinance.
There is no standard "Fire" signal in the United States, and while the use of sirens by volunteer fire departments is still common, it is diminishing. In the dry areas of the western states, residents may be required to shut off outdoor water systems to ensure adequate pressure at fire hydrants upon hearing the signal. The fire signal can vary from one community to another. Three long blasts on a siren is one common signal, similar to the signal used by volunteer brigades in Germany and other countries. Other locales use the hi-lo signal described above, and some communities (particularly in New England and northern California) make use of coded blasts over a diaphone or air horn for fire signals, reserving the use of sirens for more serious situations. Some cities use the Attack tone as their fire call. Some communities make use of an "all clear" signal, or sound separate signals for fire calls and ambulance runs.
Sirens in integrated public warning systems
Sirens are sometimes used as part of an integrated warning system that links sirens with other warning media such as the radio and TV Emergency Alert System, NOAA Weather Radio, telephone alerting systems, Reverse 911, Cable Override and wireless alerting systems in the United States and the Emergency Public Warning System in the Canadian province of Alberta. This integrated approach enhances the credibility of warnings and reduces the risk of their being dismissed as false alarms by corroborating the warning messages through multiple media. The Common Alerting Protocol is a technical standard for this sort of multi-system integration.
Siren installations themselves have many ways of being activated. Commonly used are DTMF broadcasts over phone lines (direct connection or standard PSTN) or over radio broadcast. This does leave room for exploitation, but there are protections from false alarms. These sirens can also be tied into other networks such as a fire departments volunteer notification/paging system. The basics of this type of installation would be a device (possibly the same pager the firefighters have) connected to the controller/timer system of the siren. When a page is received, the siren is activated.
Types of sirens
Mechanical sirens (direct driven)
A mechanical siren uses a rotor and stator to "chop" an air stream, which is forced through the siren by radial vanes in the spinning rotor. An example of this type of siren is the Federal Signal 2T22, which was originally developed during the Cold War and produced from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. This particular design employs dual rotors and stators to sound each pitch. Because the sound power output of this type of siren is the same in every direction at all times, it is described as omnidirectional. The Federal 2T22 was also marketed in a 3-signal configuration known as the Federal 3T22, which had capabilities for a "hi-lo" signal.
While some mechanical sirens produce sound in all directions simultaneously, other designs produce sound in only one direction, while employing a rotator mechanism to turn the siren head throughout 360 degrees. One such siren is the ACA Allertor. This siren also produces two pitches simultaneously in a musical interval, but in this case the rotor and stator incorporate separate sections for producing each pitch.
An example of such a siren being produced today is the Federal Signal Model 2001 series. Introduced in the late 80s, it is capable of battery backup. There are two separate motors in the 2001. One powers the siren rotor, while another powers the rotator mechanism.
One rare type of mechanical siren does not rotate or produce equal sound output in all directions. The Federal Signal RSH-10 "Thunderbeam" siren employs a slowly rotating angled disc below the siren, which directs the siren's output throughout 360 degrees. This same method, applied differently, produces the distinctive sound character of the Leslie loudspeaker, but the rotation of the disc in the Thunderbeam is far too slow to produce the "warbling" sound associated with the Leslie loudspeaker.
"Supercharged" electromechanical sirens
The Federal Signal Thunderbolt series is arguably the most recognizable of all warning sirens, due to its unique shape and design. It creates a very distinct tone made specifically to get the attention of people. Thunderbolt sirens use a separate blower to force air through the rotor and produce greater air movement with each pulse, thus they are described as "supercharged".
Specially designed horns having an exponential profile amplify the sound, causing the air at the end of the horn to be displaced the same distance as air in the throat of the horn with the passage of each wavefront. This lends a unique distorted character to the sound of these sirens as the throat of the horn is overloaded.
Within the Thunderbolt product line, three different configurations were offered. The Thunderbolt 1000 is a single-tone siren, and the Thunderbolt 1000T is a dual-tone siren. The Thunderbolt 1003 is essentially the same as the Thunderbolt 1000T, except that it employs solenoid-actuated slide valves to create a "hi-lo" signal primarily used as a fire signal.
Another example of a supercharged siren that has a separate blower is the Alerting Communicators of America (ACA) Hurricane.
A variation on the supercharged electromechanical siren is the pneumatic Hochleistungssirene (HLS), produced by the German firm Pintsch-Bamag, and later by the German firm Hörmann. Soon afterward, Hörmann improved on the design to create the HLS 273, which did away with the massive siren head of the original in favor of a more compact head and cast aluminum exponential-profile horns.
These sirens stored an enormous reservoir of compressed air, recharged periodically by a diesel engine-driven compressor in a vault in the base of the massive siren unit. The later HLS 273 located the large (6000 liter) air tank underground beside the machinery vault, instead of in the mast itself as in the earlier HLS units.
Electronic sirens produce their sound in a fashion that is fundamentally different from electromechanical sirens. Instead of a motor-driven rotor spinning inside a stator, electronic sirens consist of an electronic tone generator, a high-power amplifier, and a horn loudspeaker typically incorporating one or a multiple of compression drivers.
Typically the loudspeaker unit incorporates horn loading, which causes them to be similar in appearance to some supercharged electromechanical sirens.
Many of these loudspeakers incorporate a vertical array of horns, in order to achieve a practical yet effective high-power audio source with pattern control in the vertical plane. Each cell of the loudspeaker horn is driven by one or a multiple of compression drivers, which are typically purpose-built for siren applications.
One type of purpose-built compression driver for this type of loudspeaker handles 400 watts of electrical power and features an enormous magnetic structure with two donut-shaped magnet slugs stacked on top of each other to provide enormous flux.
For siren applications, high-fidelity sound is a secondary concern to high output, and siren drivers typically produce large amounts of distortion which would not be tolerable in an audio system where fidelity is important.
As with electromechanical sirens, there are both omni-directional and rotating categories, though Whelen Engineering produces sirens which oscillate through 360 degrees, rotating in one direction and then in the other to allow a hard-wired connection between the amplifiers and the siren drivers. Also, these sirens can be set to rotate any amount from 0 to 360 degrees, allowing sirens to broadcast only in certain directions.
An example of a rotating electronic siren is the Whelen Engineering "Vortex", American Signal Alertronic RE1600 and Federal Signal Siratone 408, 612, & 812, whose design incorporates four vertically arrayed loudspeaker cells exiting into a common manifold. This horn design accomplishes pattern control in the vertical plane and focuses the output into a high-penetration beam.
Examples of omni-directional electronic sirens are the Federal Signal "Modulator" series, Whelen Engineering WPS2700, WPS2800, and WPS2900, ATI HPSS and American Signal I~Force, in which compression drivers located in each cell exit into the center of the cell.
The contour of each cell forms the horn profile in this case, though other omni-directional sirens simply array directional re-entrant horn modules in all directions to produce a continuous coverage pattern, such as the ASC AL-8000 series, and Federal Signal DSA series.
- CLM Industries – A Canadian company which produced warning sirens during the Cold War. They have a distinctive appearance, with one enormous horn and a smaller, rectangular horn above it. The smaller horn was connected to a rear rotor, added on to comply with Canadian regulations requiring a dual-tone siren for civil defence. One was most famously featured in the 1980 Chicago-based film The Blues Brothers, used as a vehicle-mounted PA system, although in real life Chicago used Federal Thunderbolt sirens. Toronto has removed the majority of these sirens. There was also a vertical version available, with only 2 known to still exist.
- SoundMaster Signals Inc. – was a siren company that manufactured sirens similar to Alerting Communications of America (ACA), which then became American Signal. SoundMaster started producing sirens based on plans designed by ACA and sold them to municipalities across the midwest. The company fell apart when owner/founder Jim Morgan died in the early 1970s. The discontinuation of the particular motors used by SoundMaster, mainly due to icing defects, added to the company's demise. Very few SoundMaster sirens still exist. They made five different kinds of outdoor sirens, including a version in which a directional horn rotated around a stationary siren. SoundMasters were once numerous in Wisconsin, and throughout the midwest at one point in time. Iron Ridge, WI and Browntown, WI have operating units.
- Fosters Engineering- A Newark, New Jersey company, made steam sirens in the 1940s, which required a supply of steam or compressed air to operate. Every city that ordered from the company would get 19 sirens for a system.
- Clayton - A Daytona Beach, Florida, siren manufacturer that made the Clayton Whirlwind.
- Harrington - Makers of a 2V8 siren used to fill in "gaps" in siren systems in the north-eastern United States.
- CTI Siren - Oklahoma-based siren manufacturer. Three models are known to exist and can be found in Oklahoma.
- Toshiba - The company is still in business, but no longer manufactures its unusual omni-directional, compressor-charged siren.
- Decot - A Wisconsin-based manufacturer of fire sirens as early as the 1910s. They also produced CD sirens in their later days. Defunct since the 1950s, they invented one of the first dual-tone sirens around the 1910s.
- Erick - A Minnesota-based manufacturer, started in the 1920s and liquidated around the 1950s. Although the sirens were intended for fire-department use, they were also suitable for warning of air raids and nuclear attacks. These types can be found in the Midwest.
- Dillon Box Iron Works Co. - A Denver, Colorado-based company that produced Iron and steel throughout the late 1800s. They began supplying the local mines with tools ad equipment, and later entered the business of making municipal goods. They built the "Denver Siren," Pat. by William A. Box, a large siren that was sold by the Hendie & Bolthoff Mfg. and Supply Co. as early as 1913 until the 1930s. These sirens used a centrifugal clutch connected to a 5 HP motor, usually a Century or Westinghouse motors. These distinctive sirens had one or two large, open-ended, double sided, 20-port rotors connected by a long shaft to the motor and mounted to a common horizontal or vertical frame. Later models had a "window frame grill" bolted to the stator, most likely to keep birds from nesting in the rotor. Due to their weight, (the largest being nearly 6 feet long and 2 feet wide, made completely of iron) they were usually mounted on top of high buildings rather than poles. An article from "Electrical Review and Western Electrician" once stated when tested the local official departments received calls from as far as several miles from people wondering what the cause of the noise was. Few of the sirens still exist and only a handful of these are still in use.
- W.S. Darley and Co - Made sirens using Federal sirens with custom-made housings labeled "Darley Champion Siren." In the 1980s, Darley changed over to selling surplus ACA sirens. They currently sell Sentry sirens.
- Sparton Corporation - A Brookesville, Florida manufacturer (formerly Sparks-Withington Co of Jackson, Michigan, whose engineers produced the first all-electric horn for cars in 1911.) Made 2-HP 4-port sirens. Their sirens were very compact in size, resembling a louvered vertical cylinder, and were mainly seen around fire departments.
- H.O.R. - A New York based company that started around 1930. They made vertical sirens 3, 5, and 7.5 HP. They also produced the "Super Sirex", a large, double-ended siren usually available in single tone, dual tone, and rotating versions with a 50 Hp. motor. Their dual-tone sirens had 7 and 10 ports, producing the infamous "Devil's interval" of a diminished fifth, or tritone. They went out of business by the 1950s.
- B&M Siren Mfg. Co.- A Los Angeles, California based company that started out in 1913 making sirens for Police and Fire vehicle use. Later produced the B&M Firehouse Siren, a Siren that resembled a horizontal British siren with an unusual 12-14 port ratio. B&M Siren Mfg Co. is still in business today producing two models of vehicle siren: the Super-Chief and the Siro-Drift.
Civil-defense sirens around the world
The People's Republic of China
China has sirens located in most cities and towns, particularly those disputed or near disputed territories. Should the state declare a state of emergency because of attacks, invasion or when there is a very high risk of military conflict, sirens will blare to warn the public of possible attacks or invasion. The sirens are controlled by the People's Liberation Army.
In addition, Nanjing in China will blare air raid sirens at 10 a.m. annually on December 13, followed by a moment of silence, displaying in the memorial's collection, artifacts testifying to the savagery of Japan's Imperial Army during the "Rape of Nanking" or also known as the Nanking Massacre. Same as other sirens, the sirens that only serve memorial purpose are controlled by the People's Liberation Army.
Mumbai has around 450 sirens, located in all parts of the city. Some 200-250 are still functional. The government is thinking of repairing sirens, and installing new ones.
In Mumbai civil defense, sirens were used during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, warning civilians about air raids by the Pakistan Air Force. At night, sirens were also used to indicate blackout, when all lights in Mumbai were switched off. The sirens are tested every day at 9 am and at 5 pm. They are controlled by the Indian Defence Services. Sirens are also used to denote a minute's 'silence' at special occasions.
Air-raid sirens used are typically sounded to warn of air raids or missile attacks on civilian population. The "all-clear" signal is used three times yearly to denote a moment of silence (of one or two minutes), once on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day and twice on Day of Remembrance. Israel has more than 3100 warning sirens and most of the sirens in urban areas are German-made HLS (supercharged) sirens, model F71 and ECN3000. All the other sirens are HPSS32 made by ATI Systems (Acoustic Technologies, Inc). The air-raid sirens are called אזעקה ("Az'aka", literally "alarm"), and consist of a continuous ascending and descending tone. The "all-clear" signal (called צפירת הרגעה, "Tzfirat Arga'ah") is a continuous single-pitch sound. However, in recent conflicts, use of the "all-clear" signal has been discontinued, as it was seen as causing needless confusion and alarm.
Singapore currently has a network of over 2000 stationary sirens named the Public Warning System which warns the entire country of war air raids, man-made and natural disasters (except earth tremors). On the first day of every month Singapore's sirens are tested. During the test, the sirens sounds a light but cheerful chime instead of any of its three signals, which led to the population's speculations of the sirens reminding them of the start of each month. The sirens look very similar to the ECN3000 Israel version pictured on the upper right.
Belgium tests its air-raid sirens every first thursday of the trimester. When the air-raid sirens are tested, the message "proefsignaal" is pronounced every time the sirens work. There are 540 sirens placed all across the country. 
In France the emergency population warning network is called the "Réseau national d'alerte" (RNA). The system is inherited from the air-raid siren network (défense passive) developed before World War II. It consists of about 4,500 electronic or electromechanical sirens placed all over France. The system is tested each month at noon on the first Wednesday.
In Germany, the "Warnämter" (warning authorities) were closed in the 1990s after the cold war threat did no longer exist and the need to alert the public was considered to be not necessary. As the civil defence sirens were also frequently used to alert volunteer fire fighters, many sirens were sold to the municipalities for a symbolic price. Others were dismounted. In the 2000s it was realized that a possibility to warn the public is not only necessary in cases of war, but also in events like natural disasters, chemical or nuclear accidents or terrorist attacks. Therefore, some cities like Düsseldorf or Dresden began to rebuild their own siren warning net. The majority of operational sirens in Germany are either electric- mechanical type E57 or electronical sirens.
Norway has about 1250 operational sirens (mostly Kockums air horn units rather than motorized sirens), primarily located in cities. Three different signals are used. The "Alarm" signal is an intermittent signal for about a minute, the "all clear" message is a continuous signal for about 30 seconds, and the "critical message, listen to radio" is 3 periods with three signals, separated by one minute between the periods. The "critical message" signal is followed by a radio broadcast. The sirens are tested twice each year. The second Wednesday of January, at noon, the "critical message" signal is sounded, and on the second Wednesday of June, at noon, the "alarm" signal is sounded, followed by the "all clear" signal five minutes later. The "critical message" is used in peace time to warn the population about major accidents, big fires and gas leaks.
In Romania, civil defence sirens have been used since the early 1930s. Originally, each street had a small siren on top of highrise buildings. Each siren could be powered mechanically. During WWII, the sirens had a single continuous tone, that could be heard in the wake of an air strike.
Throughout the Cold War, bigger sirens manufactured locally have been installed on various public buildings and residences. The supercharged sirens were able to transmit a comprehensive variety of tones, each with a different meaning, such as a chemical disaster, an earthquake, a flood, an upcoming air/nuclear strike; each of these tones required the population to either move to high ground or an ABC shelter. An 'all clear' signal was played after the area has been deemed safe for the general public or decontaminated.
Since the 1990s, civil defence sirens have been replaced by electronic sirens and the procedure has been simplified. As of 2013, there are four playable tones; a natural disaster warning, an upcoming air/nuclear strike, an imminent air/nuclear strike, and an 'all clear' signal. Taking shelter is no longer a legal requirement, though ABC shelters are operational.
Switzerland currently has 8500 mobile and stationary civil-defense sirens, which can alert 99% of the population. There are also 700 sirens located near dams. Every year, on the first Wednesday of February Switzerland's sirens are tested. During this test, general alert sirens as well as the sirens near dams are tested to see if they are in working order. The population is informed of the test in the days before it by radio, television, teletext and newspapers. The siren tests do not require the population to take any special measures.
Swiss Alarm Signals
The tones of the different sirens is provided on the last page of all phone books as well as on the Internet.
- The general alert siren goes off when there is a possible threat to the population. Sirens for this alert have a regularly ascending and descending tone lasting a minute and repeated after a two-minute interval. The population is instructed to inform those around them to proceed inside. Once inside, people are instructed to listen to emergency broadcasts made by the SR DRS, RSR, RSI and/or RTR.
- Flood alerts consist of twelve low continuous tones each lasting 20 seconds. The flood alert is activated once the general siren is sounding. If heard by the population in danger zones (near dams, therefore) they must leave the danger area immediately or find shelter.
Every village, town and city in the United Kingdom used to have a network of dual-tone sirens to warn of incoming air raids during World War II, which were later put to use as warnings for nuclear attack during the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, the siren network was decommissioned in 1993 and very few remain. These sirens, mostly built by Carter, Gents, Tangent, Castle Castings, and Klaxon Signal Co., have 10 and 12 ports to create a minor third interval (B♭ and D♭ notes) and are probably the world's most recognized World War II "air raid siren" sound. In fact, recordings of British sirens are often dubbed into movies set in countries which never used this type of siren.
Where they do remain, they are mostly sounded on receipt of a severe flood warning for an area from the Environment Agency. Broadmoor Hospital has use of 13 sirens which are tested weekly. Sirens are also used for public warning near gas or nuclear power plants, nuclear submarine bases, oil refineries and chemical plants. They consist of about 1200 sirens, a mix of older motor driven sirens usually from World War II, such as the Carter siren manufactured by Gents of Leicester, and the Cold War and newer electronic sirens. They are tested once yearly between the months of August and September.
In Canada, a nationwide network of sirens was established in the 1950s to warn urban populations of a possible Soviet nuclear attack. This system was tested nationwide twice in 1961, under codenames Exercise Tocsin and "Tocsin B". The system was maintained until the 1970s, when advancements in military technology reduced the Soviet nuclear missile strike time from 3–5 hours to less than 15 minutes. Sirens can still be found in many Canadian cities, all in various states of repair. In Toronto, for instance, the network has been abandoned to the point that no level of government will take responsibility for its ownership. A handful of sirens still remain in Toronto in older established neighbourhoods:
- Princess and Bayview Avenue - Bayview Village Park
- Dundas Street West and Shaw Street
- York Quay, Harbourfront
Sirens have recently been built within 3 kilometers of the Darlington and Pickering nuclear power plants in the province of Ontario. (Both plants are within 30 kilometers of each other.) These sirens will sound in the event of a nuclear emergency that could result in a release of radioactivity. Sirens have also been placed (and are tested weekly) in Sarnia, Ontario due to the large number of chemical plants in the vicinity.
In the United States, there is no national level alert system. Normally, sirens are controlled on county or local level, or, in Hawaii, on state level. Sirens are usually used to warn of impending natural disasters, as well as threats of military attacks, which in the United States are rare. Throughout the Great Plains, Midwest, and South, they are used to warn the public to take cover when a tornado warning is issued. They are generally required in areas within a ten-mile radius of nuclear power plants. Coastal communities, especially in northern California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii use siren systems to warn of incoming tsunamis. In the South and East Coast (except from Texas, Maine and New Hampshire), they use sirens to inform people about approaching hurricanes. Also in Pierce County, Washington there is a system of sirens set up along the Puyallup and Carbon River valleys to warn residents of volcanic eruptions and lahars (giant mudslides) from Mt. Rainier.
Many cities in the US periodically sound their sirens as a test, either weekly, monthly or yearly, at a day and hour set by each individual city.
Some US volunteer fire departments, particularly in rural areas, use sirens to call volunteers to assemble at the fire house, but to a decreasing degree than in years past due to technological advancements. Some areas utilize their sirens as a last resort, relying more on cellular and paging technology; however, a decreasing number of rural brigades are outside the range of wireless communications and rely on sirens to activate the local volunteer brigade.
Many college campuses in the US, especially in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, have begun installing sirens to warn students in the event of dangerous incidents.
A series of 98 electronic sirens, making up a large-scale public-address system (the "Sydney CBD Emergency Warning System") and including 13 variable-message signs, are installed in the Sydney central business district. While installed in the months preceding the 2007 APEC conference, they are designed as a permanent fixture and are tested on a monthly basis.
Smaller-scale sirens are also deployed, like the Model 5 or Model A, used at fire stations for call-outs and at Sydney's beaches for shark alarms. Alarms are also used around prisons for break-outs and at many factories and schools to announce start and finish times.
A siren is located at the Kwinana BP plant south of Perth, which is tested every Monday. It is used to evacuate the plant in case of an emergency and can be heard in Kwinana and certain parts of Rockingham. It can also be used to warn of severe weather and potential dangerous emergencies on the Kwinana Industrial Strip.
In South Australia a number of Country Fire Service stations have a mechanical siren on, or near the station. These are only activated when the brigade are responded to bushfire or grassfire events and for testing, they are not activated for every call out as they are used as public alert to bushfires.
Lower Hutt, Napier, Wanganui, and the former Waitakere City area of Auckland each have a network of Civil Defence sirens. The networks in Lower Hutt and Napier are bolsted by fire sirens pulling double duty as Civil Defence sirens. Lower Hutt's network is further bolstered by selected industrial sirens pulling double duty as Civil Defence sirens. In the Western Bay of Plenty several fire sirens pull double duty as civil defence sirens and there is a dedicated Civil Defence siren at the Bay Park Raceway in Mount Maunganui; in the South Waikato the Tokoroa, Putaruru and Tirau fire sirens pull double duty as Civil Defence sirens and Tokoroa also has a dedicated Civil Defence siren; and Whangamata has two dedicated Civil defence sirens and the fire siren pulls double duty as a civil defence siren. In the years following the tsunamis of the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004, Meerkat electronic sirens were installed in all populated areas of the west coast lower than 10 metres.
Warning sounds vary from area to area, including rising and falling notes and Morse code sirens. Civil Defence uses a distinctive "sting" siren that is used by all radio stations nationwide, but is currently only used for civil defence sirens in Wanganui.
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- Hutt City Council
- Public Warning Systems - Napier City Council
- Wanganui District Council
- Civil Defence Emergency Management
- Tsunami warning test at Whangamata | Thames-Coromandel District Council
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Civil defense siren|
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- The Siren Archive – Over 1,000 siren photographs coupled with a few recordings from around the world
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- "Tocsin B", Canada's dry run of its Nuclear Warning System from 1961 (CBC Radio News Special, Nov. 13, 1961)
- Toronto Star story about air raid sirens in Toronto.
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