Friday, July 29, 2022

Before the memory fades: Yesterday’s fire alarm – the horn that blew numbers

By Walter Lunt

Some sounds are lost to history: the crunch and grind of the neighborhood gristmill fell silent over a century ago, the rapid clacking of the office typewriter has faded into obscurity, and today few can remember the fuzzy crackle of “snow” on yesterday’s TV screens. And, before the memory fades, the resounding blare of an air horn declaring the outbreak of fire somewhere in the community.

Ernie Nichols served with the South Windham fire station
from 1956 to 1981, the last four years as deputy chief. He
wrote 'A History of the Windham Fire Co. 1913-2004. It was
an honor to be a fireman.'
From 1966 and for many years thereafter, instead of calling 911, Windham residents reported the outbreak of fire by calling a dedicated telephone number that was preceded by an exchange known as Twin Oaks (892). The call did not go to a central dispatch center or to a fire station; instead, it went to the home of Betty Burke on Huston Road in Gorham.

Burke, who was often praised for her prompt, efficient work as the local dispatcher of the South Windham/Little Falls Fire Department, would respond in a calm, disciplined manner by requesting the location, type of fire, caller’s name and the “cottage” number. These directions, posted near the telephone of nearly every household in the town, also stated “Don’t Hang Up until full information has been given” – Walter L. Peavey, Chief.

Former deputy chief Ernest Nichols, 86, remembers the reporting routine and says the process was remarkably fast and efficient, even though the town relied on volunteer firefighters. Utilizing what was called a control box, Burke could activate a compressor, located inside the fire station at South Windham, which would trigger a loud air horn mounted on the roof, designed to alert the nearest volunteer fireman. Many lived or worked in the Little Falls neighborhood and could, in some cases, respond in less than a minute or two. The first fireman in the station would pick up the telephone receiver; Betty Burke was already on the line and would relay all relevant information. The first respondents at the station would leave for the fire. The purpose of the air horn was to alert all other fireman in town as to the approximate location of the fire.

The air horn was an improvement over a siren, used prior to 1966. “It could blow numbers,” observed Nichols, which were a series of alarm codes. He explained that, for example, if the horn blew three short blasts followed by four blasts, or 3-4, it meant the fire was on Windham Hill. The code for a fire on Haven Road was 4-4-1, and for Forest Lake, it was 4-8. Schools and large businesses had their own codes. There were over 70 different codes representing all parts of town. Volunteer firemen who did not live near the fire house would go directly to the fire. Households kept a listing of all the codes next to their telephones.

Before leaving the fire station, the address of the fire would be posted on a chalkboard where it could be observed by concerned citizens or other firefighters.

Nichols recalled the time the South Windham department was called to aid with a particularly bad blaze far out of town, “…up north of Cornish (the air horn code for “out of town” was five short blasts). Our boys had trouble locating the right road.” Again, it was Betty Burke to the rescue. She had two-way radio contact with the fire trucks. After making a few quick telephone calls, she was able to direct the crews to the correct location.

Although it was named the South Windham fire station, it actually served both Gorham and Windham. Gorham fire trucks also occupied the station. The neighborhood on both sides of the Presumpscot River bridge, which separates the two towns, was known as Little Falls but was usually referred to as simply South Windham. “It didn’t make any difference (which side of the river you were on), I can’t emphasize how much of a community it was,” says Nichols, “…there was a Windham-Gorham Club, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were from both towns, telephone numbers were all 892, and there was one post office (on the Windham side) and one library (on the Gorham side).”

But, “…if the fire was in Gorham, Gorham paid (the firefighters). If it was in Windham, Windham paid.”

Nichols maintains the two towns worked together as one for many years, “…long before there was talk about regionalization.”

Writing in Maine Firefighter Magazine in 2004, Nichols said, “This marked the first time two towns in Maine shared a fire station. By splitting the cost, both towns were able to provide…state-of-the-art (equipment) that neither town could afford by themselves.”

Nichols speaks with reverence regarding the many firemen with which he served, the chiefs and the life-saving experiences he had with the South Windham department. And he’s pleased that the old air horn, out of service for the last few decades, will be relocated to the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green where it will be installed on top of the old South Windham Library building which, before 1935, was used as the hose house for the South Windham Fire Station.

If the society can secure a compressor, what are the chances it could bring back a sound once lost to history? Nichols answered, “Maybe.” <

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