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In the world of firefighting, reminders of the past remain

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Posted: Saturday, August 14, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 7:31 am, Mon Aug 16, 2010.

Back when it took a while to get to "town," also known as Lodi, there were no pagers, cell phones or home computers. But there were still fires, car wrecks and other calamities.

Farmers got together and formed volunteer fire districts, usually with a central firehouse to hold equipment. Telephones were a luxury, and they didn't reach the volunteer firefighters, most of whom worked all day in the fields.

So sirens were installed. They were mounted atop poles fixed to the firehouse, and the tones were loud enough to summon firefighters.

"I could hear it four or five miles away, if the wind blew right," said Dan Mehrten, who began volunteering for Clements Fire in 1949, where the department used an old windmill tower for its siren.

"You'd hear the siren go off, but you didn't know where anything was at. Then you'd hear the (fire) trucks go out and you'd listen to see which way they were going."

Like everything else, the fire service world is changing, though volunteers still help staff the rural San Joaquin County stations set amongst farms and vineyards. The station-mounted sirens haven't been used since the 1960s, but reminders of the past are left behind.

At the Liberty Fire station on Bruella Road in Acampo, a shiny brass foghorn sits on a display table. Beside it is a Polaroid photo of the rusted horn before it was restored in 1983.

The department once had a different siren, but traded up for a foghorn because it was louder and more distinct, said Liberty Fire Chief Stan Seifert.

Each square mile was assigned a different number, so the tones would be sounded differently for each section and volunteers could head straight there.

"In those days, all the calls came to the station; they didn't go to a dispatcher like they do now. So whoever was on duty would get the call," said Bernie Mettler, who volunteered for Mokelumne Fire for 45 years and now sits on the board.

Sirens mounted atop the firehouse were connected to a box inside the station with a gear mechanism. Brass discs fit in the mechanism, and each had different patterns of teeth, so they would trigger different lengths of tones on the siren.

"Put the right disk in there, pull the handle down, and they could leave and the horn would start blowing," Mettler said.

"In those days, half the time you could probably see the smoke anyway," he added with a laugh.

The various tones were confusing, so Liberty Fire went to a simpler system, Seifert said. Two blasts of the foghorn called everyone for a fire; one blast meant it was a false alarm.

Most volunteers worked at Liberty Winery or on nearby farms, so they'd scramble to grab gear, and in the meantime the person manning the firehouse would go tell them where the fire was located.

Then came the era of two-way radio communication, and volunteers got them in their homes. They had to be plugged in, though, so usually the wives would hear the call and go out to the fields to tell their husbands, Seifert said.

Technology kept advancing, and now volunteers carry pagers that will reach them just about anywhere. Many are even switching to text messages over cell phones, though coverage in rural areas is still not reliable enough to get rid of pagers, Seifert said.

Additionally, firefighters now respond to medical calls alongside paramedics. In the "old days," before centralized 911 dispatch centers, people simply called the ambulance company directly if they were sick, Mettler said.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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