Powell area residents may have noticed that’s something’s been missing from town in recent months: the fire whistle. Used to notify members of the Powell Volunteer Fire Department of a fire, crash or other call for service — and to alert residents of trouble in the area — the siren has been offline for some time while infrastructure was moved to a new location. But it will be back online soon.
Pete de Haan took the slow, dusty drive to the top of the McCullough Peaks on Wednesday, carrying delicate electronic equipment over the bumpy road. He’s familiar with the drive, sometimes making business trips to the top once a week.
“It’s 10 miles of dirt,” he said of the long drive.
You’ll know when de Haan is finished with his task, because the city’s fire whistle will once again blow.
Last week’s trip was one of many de Haan has made recently in an effort to get the Park County Fire Protection District No. 1’s new repeater on line. For almost a year now, the fire department has been using the Park County Sheriff Office’s frequency to conduct business while the district’s repeater was moved from the Bighorn Mountains, near Medicine Wheel, to the McCullough Peaks. The location in the Bighorns had been better when Frannie was part of the Powell department’s coverage area. But with Frannie now served by the Frannie-Deaver Fire Department, the Powell district decided to move its repeater to the McCullough Peaks to help fill holes in the coverage area, said Bear May, president of the district board, fireman and emergency medical technician.
“We had a lot of dead spots, so we thought we’d move it closer,” May said. “There have been some issues with the move.”
The complications in installation are due to the popularity of the peaks for various communications transmissions, as others are licensed to run their operations from the same area, said de Haan, owner of de Haan Electronics in Powell.
“There’s a lot of interference up there,” he said. “The system does work, but not to our standards.”
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De Haan hopes to get a break from the travel soon. Wednesday’s trip revealed a couple installation issues at the Peaks, including some ice or lightning damage to an antenna, he said. De Haan is making another trip to the Peaks early this week and hopes to have the new repeater up and running soon — possibly by the end of the week — after installing a series of filters to block the interference. It’s like a puzzle, requiring many tests to ensure that, once the move to the new repeater is official, there’s no chance of losing emergency communications for the department’s analog system, which includes beepers, two-way communications and audio warning system.
When finished, the all-volunteer department’s fire whistle will once again be in operation. Depending on your perspective, that can be good or bad news.
Folks either love or hate the siren sporadically calling out to volunteers. There are those who find comfort in hearing the siren, knowing to be on the lookout for volunteers rushing to the station and then responding to an emergency. And there are just as many folks who find the whistle annoying.
“Half the town wants to hear it and half the town [complains] about it,” de Haan said.
Responding to previous complaints of residents being awoken by calls in the middle of the night, the whistle was set to a timer prior to the move to the Peaks. It now only blows between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., according to de Haan, and the same system will be in place once it’s back in operation.
The department would like to have the system set to follow sunrise and sunset, according to May, but that would require expensive light sensitive timers, de Haan said; the timers currently being used were very inexpensive.
If the siren does go off in the middle of the night, it can be a warning to citizens of a civil defense issue — such as a tornado. Civil defense mode involves a continuous blast of the whistle, rather than the rise and fall of a fire call.
The Powell fire department was dispatched to 236 calls in 2019, according to data from the sheriff’s office, though with a number of those being at night, not all of them would involve tripping the city’s sirens.