When I was a kid and growing up in a small town, hearing the fire sirens blaring was a big deal. That was before modern gadgets such as smart phones and pagers, so the siren was the only way to alert the volunteer firemen they needed to get to the fire department shed as soon as possible.
Sometimes, it seemed almost comical: at the first note of the alarm, people could be seen dropping whatever it was they were doing and running to their cars.
That same siren blew every day at noon and at the end of the day, too, but somehow people must have been attuned to time. No one started running at the sound of the “noon whistle” or the “6 o’clock whistle” as they were called. Or maybe the first reaction was to quick glance at their watches, if they wore one.
The firemen weren’t the only ones who made a fast beeline to their vehicles. Chasing the fire truck to watch a fire was a great form of entertainment for many of the local folks. A fire truck, by the time it hit the road, was just the lead unit in what was usually a parade: people followed the truck to the fire.
I suppose the motivation for many of the followers was that maybe their help was needed at the fire. But unexpected fires were also a source of fascination: fires are interesting to watch.
There is also the element of curiosity as to what is burning, how bad it is, whether animals or people are injured or worse, what kind of property destruction is occurring, and I am sure many other reasons. A fire often turned into a social event.
My uncle’s barn started on fire one evening and I remember the people gathering, my family included. Folks brought their lawn chairs; the word spreads fast if it is a particularly bad fire. Some people stayed all night, talking, drinking coffee and expressing sympathy for the loss.
When almost an entire block of the main street in town burned — and it was a short main street to begin with — the sidewalk superintending went on for three days, almost until the rubble finally quit smoldering.
Like the volunteer fire department, our town also had an ambulance. Actually, the funeral director’s white hearse doubled as an ambulance and either he or one of his furniture store employees did the driving. There were very few times anyone in town was transported to a hospital by ambulance. Maybe that was because its departures were not signaled via a very loud public alarm. Or maybe it was because no one wanted to take a ride in what on other days was used for someone’s last ride ever on this earth. But people were still curious, and word would spread about who was so sick, or hurt so badly, that s/he had to go in the ambulance.
Outside of a certain limit, people living in the country might not hear the sirens, but they could find out about an event pretty quickly. We did not have “party” telephone lines in town (we had private lines), but farm residences did. They shared a single telephone line with usually several of their neighbors. The code as to which house was being called was the number of rings: one ring was for this farm, two for another, and so on. There was nothing to stop people from picking up and listening in to other people’s calls, so “news” could spread pretty fast.
Of course some people were known to always be listening in on other people’s conversations; that was called rubbernecking. That was the unofficial way to get the word out.
The official way, if there was something that should be communicated to everyone, was that the operator would do a general ring, which meant that everyone on the line should pick up the phone.
In thinking about this, it has occurred to me that, to my knowledge, no one ever followed, or “chased,” the ambulance. In fact, there were very few ambulance “runs.” But there were a lot of fires.
Now, it seems there are a whole lot of ambulance calls, and very few fires. That leads to the question of why the apparent reversal. I would guess that due to safety precautions, building improvements, inventions and knowledge gained over the years, fires just don’t have as big a chance to get started anymore.
But why more ambulance calls? Maybe people are sicker or have more accidents now than before. We do know that in the past, death was a more acceptable part of life than it is now.
Or maybe it is superstition: since the hearse no longer doubles as the ambulance, we don’t hesitate to call for help.