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The Rockies Life Staff

The Sweet Siren Call of Rural Alberta

A blast from the past: Alberta towns embrace historic sirens as daily rituals

From ambulances to extreme weather alerts, sirens are used for many things. The ear-piercing sound is an annoyance to some, provoking anxiety in others. But, in Thorsby, a small town located about 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, and the fewer than 1,000 people that live there, the sound represents fond memories of the past.  

But why does Thorsby have a siren to begin with? 

During the Cold War, the federal government pushed to install civil defence sirens across Canada, also called air raid sirens. The sirens were meant to warn of a nuclear attack. 

Thankfully, a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR never came to be. 

“It started out as a program meant to put air raid sirens in cities of 50,000 people or more…Later on, they started to install them in smaller centres,” Eric Strikwerda, associate professor of history at Athabasca University, told CBC News.

The government’s push for air raid sirens resulted in more than 100 sirens installed in communities across Alberta, including Thorsby. By the mid-1960s, there were almost 2,000 sirens across Canada. Instead of letting these Cold War relics collect dust, communities found other uses for the sirens. 

In Thorsby, the siren was sounded to call firefighters to fire if they did not respond to a radio call. To ensure the siren was working, it was also sounded every day at noon, which has since become a tradition for the town. 

Thorsby isn’t the only town with an ear for a regular siren call.

A mural painted on a buliding showing residents of Thorsby Alberta doing various community activities
Thorsby’s 2017 commemorative mural. Town of Thorsby

In 1952, the town of Bowden, about 45 kilometres south of Red Deer, purchased a siren. Before the purchase, the town used a school bell to alert firefighters to a fire. More than 70 years later, the siren still goes off at noon every day for the same reasons as Thorsby: to ensure the equipment is functional and for nostalgia. 

Wabamun, a hamlet roughly 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, installed a siren in 1965 to help the fire department protect the entire municipal district. In an emergency, residents called an advertised number and an operator on the other end would write down the details of the emergency. The operator then pushed a button that sounded the hamlet’s siren ten times. 

Wabamun’s siren is no longer used for emergencies since it was replaced by a pager system in the 1970s, but it still sounds at noon daily. To Bill Purdy, a member of the hamlet’s original fire crew in 1964, the siren illustrates the change in how fires are handled. 

“It’s so overwhelming to look back…and just see the changes that have happened in the whole fire services,” explained Purdy. 

If the blaring sound of a siren once a day wasn’t enough for you, the village of Holden turns it up a notch. About 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, Holden sounds a siren three times a day at noon, 6 PM, and 9 PM. According to Michele Mulder, a long-time resident, the siren used to sound at 8 AM too.

“As a young family back in the day raising children here in the village, noon was lunchtime, 6 o’clock was supper and 9 o’clock the kids came home…It was just a really nice kind of reminder for everybody,” said Mulder. 

Who needs a rooster when you have a siren? 

A photograph of main street in Bowden, Alberta
Bowden Main Street. Glen Larson | Wikimedia Commons

In addition to Thorsby, Bowden, and Wabamun, other communities where sirens sound at noon include Bashaw, Valleyview, Warburg, and Boyle. Most communities embrace the sounding of sirens at noon tradition, but not everyone agrees. 

A complaint in 2013 caused Thorsby to contract AHS to do a noise survey. The survey found that the level and duration of the noise coming from the siren was not a hearing impairment hazard. Thorsby Mayor Darry Hostyn held a plebiscite on the topic, with a majority voting to keep the siren. 

Concerns about noise pollution were also raised in Bowden in 2017. This surprised many, including then-Councillor Sheila Church and Larry Werner, a member of the Bowden Fire Department. Church claimed Bowden residents liked the siren and enjoyed the nostalgia that came with its sound. 

“I don’t know why anybody would complain about that unless there is not something better to do…That was the old way before radios and everything else. That’s how it used to notify firefighters that there was an emergency in town,” Werner told Mountain View Today.

For many towns scattered across our province, the howling of air raid sirens is packed with fond memories of community, family, and growing up. 

What harm is there in keeping the tradition alive? 

Plus, you’ll always know when it’s time to break out your lunch!

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