Every night at 10 p.m., a Second World War air raid-like siren wails throughout Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., often travelling over the St. Marys River and throughout the Ontario Sault.
It’s never an emergency.
The Sault Ste. Marie Fire Department has been ringing, what’s informally called ‘the curfew siren’, since as far back as the 1950s — at least, that's what we think.
Fire Chief Scott LaBonte says at this point, it’s mostly out of tradition.
The siren itself sits at the back on the roof of the of the city’s downtown fire hall.
The hall has been home to the fire department since its construction in 1907.
However, neither the fire department nor anyone at the Chippewa County Historical Society knows when the siren was built or when it was placed there.
The Chippewa County Historical Society recently asked people on Facebook about the siren and people reported hearing it as far back as the 50s.
The 1950s date coincides with a still-in-effect 1957 city ordinance stating no one under the age of 16 can be in a ‘public street, highway, road, alley, park, public building, place of amusement or entertainment, vacant lot or other unsupervised place’ between the hours 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless they are accompanied by an adult, running an emergency errand for an adult, or attending an event put on by ‘church, school, civic or fraternal organization’.
Sault Ste. Marie Michigan Police Department isn't strict in their enforcement, said Chief Jon Riley.
“How often it's enforced depends what’s going on in the city,” said Riley. “It’s enforced (but) it’s not a high priority so long as we don’t have issues.”
Riley said basically it's used in cases where there is suspected trouble being caused.
Fire Chief LaBonte wasn’t even sure there was a curfew in the Sault — that’s not why the firefighters ring it.
For LaBonte’s team, it’s a ritual that connects them with the past.
“There are so many things about the fire service that are getting out of tradition (like) the way we fight fires, the fire apparatus, the politics, the education… we need things to cement us to the past,” said LaBonte.
Every night at 10 p.m., including Christmas and every other holiday, the most junior member of the fire department staff on duty slides down the department’s staircase and goes to a booth in the garage and flips a circuit-breaker to turn the siren on.
Each firefighter rings the siren with a personal flourish, said Labonte.
Some will make a short ring then a long one, others will make more of a staccato siren.
LaBonte’s been with the fire department since 1995 and says the only times it hasn’t run on time is when firefighters were called to a fire scene or when, in the late fall or early spring, moisture will freeze inside the siren, preventing the siren from ringing.
As far as he knows, it’s never broken down.
They very rarely run it for other reasons, like in 2002 when it was rung during a 9-11 memorial.
Labonte said it can be heard within a six-mile radius around the fire station. During the winter, the sound travels further.
“It’s pretty much there for you to look at your watch and go ‘Huh. It’s 10 o’clock’,” said Labonte.