Where There’s Smoke There’s A Fire (Moose): The Story Behind the Fire Moose

8 mins read

The Swarthmore Fire Department’s siren, known colloquially by Swarthmore students as the fire moose because of its blaring horn sounding like a moose call, is somewhat of a Swarthmore legend. The siren is part of Swat’s campus, as students hear it go off throughout the day. However, many Swarthmore students aren’t aware of the extensive history of the fire moose. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Tyler MacCrone, an employee at the Swarthmore Fire and Protective Association (SFPA), explained the original purpose of the fire siren, which was used to inform fire department volunteers that there was a fire call. 

“I know it’s kind of traditional from back in the early 1900s. Before pagers and cell phones, you’d have your typical homeowner who would be in their house or out doing yard work or wherever it may be. So they [used] the fire siren and that’s how they would know it was a fire call and they should come to the firehouse,” he explained.

The SFPA was chartered in 1908, with one hose wagon and two horse chemical wagons. In 1917, a system was implemented where after the fire siren went off, a staff member at the SFPA would write the location of the fire on a blackboard in the firehouse so that volunteers arriving to respond to the call would know where to go. By 1924, SFPA developed a system where a different number of siren blasts meant a different location and type of emergency. For example, a fire on Swarthmore’s campus was indicated by four blasts, whereas a fire out of town used five.

Today, though, the fire moose serves less of a practical use, and is now more about the well-honored tradition of using a siren to call people to the firehouse, reliably sounding with three blasts for all emergencies.

“Obviously, technology has kind of taken over and everything’s automated now. Now it’s kind of just like nostalgia,” said MacCrone.

MacCrone further explained that even with the new technology today, the fire siren is still automatically sounded when volunteers and staff are dispatched during emergencies.

“Basically, what happens is somebody calls 911, the call goes to the 911 center, which is in Middletown Township, and they then process the call and put it into a computer using a program called Computer Aided Dispatch. [It] sends out a digital tone to the firehouse. That tone activates the siren … to indicate there’s a fire call for the volunteers.”

The people who end up dispatched by the digital tone and fire siren are a mixture of career staff and volunteers, two of which are Swarthmore Emergency Medical Service (EMS) volunteers. Today, however, SFPA is struggling to find volunteers.

“I just think nobody wants to volunteer for free anymore. It’s hard to get your EMT, it’s like [a] 162-hour [certification] … I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to do it for free either.”

MacCrone went on to explain that the lack of volunteers is a larger issue that affects more than just the Swarthmore area. 

“EMS in Delaware County has kind of taken a big hit recently. So at any given point in time, there are only maybe fifteen or twenty EMS units available,” he said. “A lot of times we go [to areas] outside [of Swarthmore]. Like right now they’re going on an ambulance call in [another] township. That isn’t what it was typically like in the past,” he explained. 

This lack of staff means that SFPA has to respond to more calls during the year because there are fewer units available in Delaware County. MacCrone estimated that this year SFPA has responded to 882 ambulance calls and roughly 300 fire calls. 

“[We respond to] maybe 75 calls a year [on Swarthmore’s campus]. A lot of that is Friday and Saturday nights for obvious reasons,” he said. 

With each of these many calls for SFPA throughout the year, the fire siren reliably goes off on Swarthmore’s campus, right next to the fieldhouse. Students have mixed reactions to the siren and the noise it makes. Many students noted that the loud sound is disruptive. In an interview with The Phoenix, Aakash Koduru ’25 remarked on these problems with the siren. 

“There have been a number of occasions since my freshman year [where] it has woken me up very early in the morning. And there are a number of occasions where it just kind of scares me when it randomly comes out of the blue. And I just think it’s a lot,” he said. 

When asked if they get complaints about the fire siren, MacCrone explained that SFPA does get a few calls throughout the year about it. 

“[We get calls] maybe a handful of times a year. People will call, especially when school first starts, because they’ve never heard it before,” he said.  

In order to lessen the complaints, SFPA has changed the fire siren to not go off at night. MacCrone explained that the fire siren turns off at nine or ten o’clock depending on daylight savings and resumes sounding its alarm at six or seven in the morning. 

While some Swat students have complaints about the noise of the siren, many disagree with the negative assessment of the fire siren. In an interview with the Phoenix, Macie Mangini ’26 explained that she thinks the whole thing is kind of a funny part of campus. 

 “I think it’s kind of comedic, especially if you’re near it, because it is very, very loud. So I think it’s generally known on campus just because of how loud it is,” she said. 

Magnini, who is a freshman on the women’s soccer team, and her other teammates even dressed up for Halloween as the fire moose. 

“The seniors got to choose the [team] costume and they sent out a poll between fire moose and astronauts and aliens and a bunch of people picked fire moose. Not as many freshmen because we didn’t really know what it was, but soon after that costume got picked we kind of found out the culture behind it and that it’s the big alarm that’s by the fieldhouse. It was kind of funny and a bunch of people on campus got it,” she said.

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