Noon siren’s song fading – everyone loves it, no one (so far) wants it

If the siren leaves, you'll hear the bell. If the siren stays and sounds, the bell atop the fire station will remain silent. KLH | Union

If the siren leaves, you'll hear the bell. If the siren stays and sounds, the bell atop the fire station will remain silent. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Despite popular demand, things aren’t looking so good for restoration of Arcata’s downtown noon siren.

Deactivated last Oct. 27 as part of the massive remodeling of the Arcata Fire Protection District’s Ninth Street station, the rusting siren was to be scrapped.

Immediate public protest prompted Kirk Cohune, whose Greenway Partners project management firm is directing the district’s remodeling and overall realignment, to salvage the doomed siren and restore it to service.

That may not happen, because no one (so far) wants to site the screaming horn on their building.

Fire Chief Desmond Cowan pores over station remodel plans.  KLH | Union

Fire Chief Desmond Cowan pores over station remodel plans. KLH | Union

“We have had zero success in finding a new home for it,” Cohune said. “Zero interest, literally.”

But only locally. A possible buyer in Arizona would like to use the former air raid siren as a flash flood alert. While there’s only a “loose verbal agreement,” the would-be buyer has offered to take it off Cohune’s hands and pay for shipping. If a local host isn’t found within a week or so, the siren is off to the Grand Canyon State.

That would actually make things easier for Cohune and company, who have stripped the downtown station and are immersed in its reconstruction. The historic building will be topped by the district’s vintage 1,000-pound W.T. Garrett & Co. bell, which is being restored. An electronic clapper is to be installed for noontime sounding. Eventually, the beloved brass bell will again ring at noon as it did in the early decades of the 20th century – or will it?

The siren will blare on, just not here. KLH | Union

The siren will blare on, just not here. KLH | Union

That depends on the siren. Cohune said there’s no sense in making the bell operational if the siren is going to sound at the same moment, since the siren is so much louder. “If we find a home for the siren, we won’t buy an expensive dinger for the bell,” he said.

And there’s the additional expense of restoring and getting permits for the siren, which would cost an estimated $7,000 to $12,000. “It’s many thousands that could go to improving incident response for a siren that serves no operational purpose,” he said.

Anyone wishing to host the siren may contact Debi Farber Bush at [email protected] or (707) 822-0597.

Meanwhile, the downtown Arcata station’s overhaul is proceeding apace. The vintage building has been gutted to its core structure, revealing some fascinating construction details and giving up a few minor secrets.

The building has been through several remodels and expansions. Particularly odd are 1944-vintage walls constructed of vertically stacked 2x4 boards. In 1957, a second story was added, and in 1979 the ground floor was expanded. A 1992 seismic retrofit saw stout steel girders installed.

“It’s pretty incredible the way they built it,” said Fire Chief Desmond Cowan.

Found in the wall. KLH | Union

Found in the wall. KLH | Union

The modernized station will reopen for business in June, he said. Construction at the McKinleyville station, which will house the district’s new administrative offices, begins in March for a possible September opening. Until then, the district will remain temporarily headquartered at Fifth and J streets in Arcata.

One thing Cowan had hoped to find, but didn’t, was a purposeful blast from the past. “It would have been pretty awesome in 1957 if they had left a time capsule in the wall,” he said. “That’s what’s missing. We’re going to do one in an interior wall.”

Several stages of fire station constr

Several stages of fire station constr

A few finds were uncovered inside the walls. One is the scribbled signatures of firefighters James Fabbri, Waino Antilla and Jere Buck, dated Aug. 5, 1957. Another is the scrawled statement, “Bernardi is a dummie,” signed by John Davis. Davis, now retired to Arizona, told Cowan he wrote that in the early 1960s with Arcata Fire legend Archie Bernardi standing nearby. They all had a good laugh.

Cowan had the inscribed wall segments removed and plans to frame Davis’ graffitum and send it to him.

Another mini-mystery uncovered at the station is the many silver-painted walls. Cowan is baffled, as is former Arcata Fire Foreman Alan Masterson. He served with the department from 1947 to 1957, operating a Studebaker three-pumper.

“I can’t think of a reason why they’d be silver,” Masterson said.

Masterson, 90, has vivid memories of the now-gone building which used to occupy the east side of the downtown station near Ninth and F streets. Arcata’s historic Excelsior Hall, which dated back to the 1800s, hosted innumerable dances and social functions. Acquired by the fire department in the early 1920s and renamed the Firemen’s Hall, it served many of the same functions.

“They had everything there – the Gingham Ball, the September Ninth Celebration, the Harvest Ball and the Christmas Ball,” Masterson said. “I danced plenty of times there.”

The Firemen’s Hall burned down on July 30, 1945, and was later replaced by the present structure. Among the losses were what was said to be the finest dance surface in Northern California, a two-inch maple floor.

“In them days, it was altogether different,” Masterson said.

Greenway Partners Press Release

ARCATA/McKINLEYVILLE – Greenway Partners has completed the design for the Arcata Fire Department and will now provide on-site project management coordinating with Pacific Builders to renovate the facility. This long overdue investment in critical public safety infrastructure is slated for completion in late spring.

A pre-construction meeting was held at the Greenway Building to orient contractors and sub-contractors on the rules and regulations regarding this project. Everything from heat to drywall and electricity to finishes was discussed. Tony Luchessi of Pacific Builders stated, “By nature, one of the most important buildings in any community is its fire department, and all of us at Pacific Builders are honored to be part of the team to complete the modernization of the Arcata Fire Protection District (AFPD). Although Pacific Builders will be the visible organization on site, all credit is due the AFPD and Greenway Partners for completing the decades-long process of getting the project up to the commencement of construction.”

Total cost for the expansion and upgrades for both the McKinleyville and Arcata Fire stations are in excess of $3.8 million. A generous contribution of $1,250,000 was received from the Orvamae Emmerson Fund. Additional funds were secured by community donations including the private sector, service clubs and businesses as well as by selling property owned by the organization.

Additionally, Arcata Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) is providing construction financing to the project. The investment will return benefits to our community by protecting homes, property and natural resources from threats to the lives and public health that come from both man made and natural disasters. “We’re excited to see the renovation happen after all these years of planning; the stations would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of the district volunteers and the community,” states Fire Chief Desmond Cowan.

The Downtown Arcata facility is being redesigned to accommodate on-duty personnel plus additional equipment. The facility will also be upgraded structurally to withstand Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes, so that firefighters may continue to respond to community needs during such an event.

The McKinleyville facility is currently a satellite station, with small crew quarters and apparatus bays for two engines. A new administrative headquarters is planned here, which will also have expanded crew quarters, larger apparatus bays and more room for additional on-duty personnel.


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  1. JoeCommentor said:

    “$7000 to $12000 for a PERMIT for the siren”. People who put up with this kind of government, deserve it.

  2. Cat said:

    What about the Weather Service in Eureka? It could be used somewhere as a tsunami warning.

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