Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The power of positive thought when the fire whistle blows

I don’t know how unusual this is, but our town still has a fire whistle that blows in a designated pattern when firefighters are needed to respond to a fire. The pattern, a series of monotones with spaces between them, like Morse code, is determined by the address of the fire.

To me this has long seemed anachronistic. We have an on-call fire department, meaning that no one staffs the station; all the men on the force -- and at the moment it is all men – transform into uniformed firefighters only when called to respond to an emergency. The rest of the time they are at their day jobs, with their families, out biking, and doing all the other things that Carlisle adults do. So I understand that once many decades ago, the code informed the firefighters of where they were needed. But today they all carry beepers and cell phones through which an address could be instantly text-messaged, which is surely much easier than parsing out the code as you listen for the pattern of seven tones, space, three tones, space, six tones, repeat from the beginning, or whatever it might be. So I don't know why we still use the code system.

But this week in church, I saw a different side of the issue. The minister was talking about ways that we as a congregation offer help. She was making the point that we help others both close to home and far away: it might be a neighbor facing foreclosure; it might be earthquake victims in Haiti. We each make choices all the time about where we are going to direct our charitable resources and our generous impulses.

And just as she was emphasizing the point about helping close to home, the fire whistle went off. As the one firefighter who happened to be sitting in the pews that morning jumped up and gathered up his belongings, the minister had the presence of mind to offer a blessing on his efforts and a brief prayer for safety as he hustled out of the room. It was all fast and spontaneous, and yet remarkably appropriate given the situation.

In a few minutes, we could hear distant sirens, and although it was a very good sermon, I think at that point everyone’s mind was half on Kevin and the other firefighters. That made me wonder for the first time if maybe the purpose of the fire whistle system is not to summon the firefighters, which could just as easily be done by phone or beeper, but to alert the community to the fact that someone in our town was experiencing a household emergency and that several other townspeople were off tending to that emergency, and that our hopes and wishes should be with all of them. Maybe by directing our thoughts toward them in that way, we were increasing the odds of a good outcome.

As it happens, the question of whether it helps to direct positive thoughts to people in need is a topic of ongoing debate in our congregation. Like many Unitarian Universalist churches, we devote time during every service to Candles of Community, a ritual in which parishioners can opt to light a candle and speak a few words to express, in the minister’s words, “a joy or sorrow in their lives.” Some people believe that asking for thoughts or prayers to be directed to, for example, someone who has just undergone surgery actually results in a faster healing time. Others maintain it’s just a way for parishioners to stay in touch with each other’s lives, and those who choose to announce personal joys or sources of sadness are doing so just to forge a stronger bond with fellow church members.

I’ve never believed in the former idea, that asking a roomful of eighty people to think healing thoughts about your uncle who just had open heart surgery will actually help him to get better, because I maintain it turns faith into a popularity contest: that is, why not attend a bigger church that day, so you could have twice as many people directing healing thoughts to your uncle? But it’s fine with me if sharing intimate issues is just someone’s way of reaching out and asking for the community’s emotional support, even though it’s not something I choose to do myself.

Still, hearing the fire whistle that morning made me reconsider a little bit. Maybe every time the fire whistle goes off in town, some number of people stop and hope for safety for the firefighters and the victim of the fire alike. Maybe that helps. In church that morning, it certainly felt as if Kevin was rushing out to the fire station on a wave of well-meaning prayer.

It turned out to be a minor event – so minor, in fact, that Kevin was back in time for coffee hour. But it was an informative moment for me, and gave me a new way of looking at our seemingly anachronistic community notification system. Sure, we can instant message or email to get word out, but there’s something symbolic about the whole community listening to a fire whistle blow. We’re all hearing the same news at the same time, together. And though I know this probably isn’t the case, maybe on some level that was the purpose of the system all along.


  1. the distracted hausfrauMay 26, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    i love your take on the fire whistle! i, too, have wondered why we still use it (will have to ask my firefighter husband if he knows). regardless of why, i will now think positive thoughts for the firefighters when i hear it :)

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