One of Sitka’s many Tsunami Sirens sprinkled throughout the city. (KCAW photo/Cameron Clark)

If you live in or have visited Sitka, you know the sound. Each weekday at around noon, electronic bells echo for miles in every direction, letting locals know that it’s lunchtime.

It’s the city’s tsunami siren, proudly playing a local cover of the Westminster chimes, made famous by the “Big Ben” clock tower above parliament in London — at 11:58 a.m. But why?

Downloadable audio.

Note: Curious City is a radio project which began at WBEZ in Chicago. The station asked listeners to send in their ideas for stories for WBEZ reporters to investigate. As it turns out, listeners were not as much interested the big political issues of the day, as they were in the little stuff: like why parking wasn’t enforced on Sundays.

Curious City has been adopted by many other stations, and now it’s Sitka’s turn. In the first installment of Curious Sitka, we sent reporter Cameron Clark to find out why Sitkans hear the Westminster Chimes every weekday at 11:58 a.m.

“In the old days at noon, every work day, we pushed a button here at the fire hall as sort of a lunch warning or something,” Sitka Fire Chief, Dave Miller, said. “Then for a long period of time we didn’t have that, so when we put these new sirens in, we decided to give it a try and see what people thought.”

Sitkan reactions were mixed. According to Miller, some people loved it while others hated it. But there was, and still is, mass confusion as to why chimes play instead of the real siren.

It turns out, the chief doesn’t want people to become desensitized to the sound.

“We’re only going to set the siren off if it’s truly a disaster. We don’t have to test them. We don’t have to do anything, they can self test. So, the only time you’re going to hear the siren is if it’s really something,” he said.

In fact the sirens are silently tested four times a day, checking everything up to the amplifiers and speakers. So the fire department had to choose a unique sound to complete the test. Enter the Westminster chimes.

“There were only certain songs that we could put on air, they’re already prerecorded things that the company did,” Miller said. “We thought maybe we could put some Led Zeppelin or some other stuff, but nah this is one of the ones that they had”

The chimes are not a random musical choice — there’s a reason they’re included with the software. The chimes have an International meaning of “all is clear.” Many big cities like London and Sydney have played chimes to reassure their citizens.

And Sitkans have taken a liking to them too. According to senior fire engineer, Craig Warren, the daily tests are by requests — and not necessity.

“Initially when we turned it on, the chief and I talked about it and he said, ‘Just put it on Wednesdays, Wednesdays at noon.’ And that’s how we started it. And there were like 100 signatures that came through requesting that we played it daily. So we took daily as week daily,” Warren said.

Firefighter, Parker White, working in the Siren control room. (KCAW photo/Cameron Clark)

Ever since, the audio test has been carried out Monday through Friday, never missing a beat except for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And according to Chief Miller, it’s become a normal part of the week.

“The majority of people really want it, so if it’s down for some reason and they don’t go off for a couple of days, people call us and ask us, ‘why isn’t that happening?’ It’s sort of an issue to them,” he said.

Long time resident, Peg Shea, has been living in Sitka for 37 years. She’s a fan of the chimes.

“I kind of like that it’s not a loud siren, but more of a tune. I grew up in New England where the church bells ring at noon time, so it was always a nice little something to listen to and a reminder of the time of day. I think it’s actually a pleasant way to test,” she said.

Each siren emits 3200 watts of amplified sound horizontally, which can be harmful to anyone at the same height. So the sirens at Shotgun Alley, Pioneer Park, and the Ferry Terminal had to be dialed down a bit.

Now if we could only figure out why they seem to go off early.

KCAW – “I noticed today, while recording that it went off at like 11:58 instead of 12?”

Miller – “Then your clock is wrong [laughter]. I think what you hear is different sirens going off, so that may be what it is, but it’s suppose to go off at noon. At least it’s designed to go off at noon anyway. Who knows with modern technology and computers, it could be off by hours someday, I don’t know [laughs].” 

Do you catch KCAW online? If you click, stream, or scroll through Raven Radio’s content, we need your help now!