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Parts Of Phoenix Cold War History Disappearing Into The Hands Of Collectors

At the height of the Cold War, the Phoenix metro area was a juicy target for a Soviet nuclear attack. It had two major Air Force bases, several large defense contractors and Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles miles away in Tucson.

Mid-Century Americans faced constant reminders of a Soviet nuclear threat. The duck-and-cover method was prevailing wisdom at the time and taught to schoolchildren. Residents built fallout shelters in their yards or houses. The community regularly held air raid drills, according to historic Arizona Republic articles.

To warn the public of impending annihilation, Maricopa County installed about 40 air-raid sirens on schools, fire stations, tall poles, and government buildings all around the Valley. One was even mounted atop Tempe Butte, overlooking the Arizona State University campus and the then-dry Salt River. For decades, the sirens were tested on Saturdays at noon — but fortunately, they never needed to signal an attack.

By the mid-1990s, the system was unceremoniously disconnected. The disappearing Soviet nuclear threat, the rapidly expanding suburbs and more technologically-advanced warning systems that allowed authorities to target discrete areas rendered it obsolete.

'Mock Attack Unexciting'

At 2 p.m. on April 28, 1961, the city’s air-raid sirens roared to life. Civil Defense took over the radio airwaves and began relaying essential emergency information to the public, while emergency workers began implementing the city’s evacuation plans.

But the public didn’t pay any attention. An article in the Arizona Republic described downtown shoppers “mill(ing) through the streets unmindful,” and office workers “annoyed by noisy blasts from the sirens.”

This was part of a nationwide mock attack designed to test national civil defense infrastructure. To mid-century Phoenicians, it was another day.  Col. William Eldridge, then-chief deputy director of the Phoenix-Maricopa County Civil Defense Council, said he was “surprised at the attitude of the people,” which the newspaper described as “public apathy.”

Fortunately, this warning system never had to be used for a real emergency. But there were plenty of false alarms, which raised doubt about how effective the system would be if lives were actually in danger.

In 1969, a siren mounted at Kaibab Elementary School (now Echo Canyon School) in Arcadia accidentally sounded. Instead of taking cover for a potential nuclear attack, though, neighbors inundated local police with phone calls, according to a newspaper article from that day.

In 1991, the Arizona Republic reported a “flubbed test” where “for more than 15 minutes Friday morning, parts of central and West Phoenix were bombarded with the noise.” The sirens were controlled by telephone lines — and technicians at the phone company had accidentally sent out the wrong signal over the lines.

Again, residents didn’t take shelter: They were curious about the commotion.

Siren tests were suspended during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and again during the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, though, so as not to induce a panic.

Rob Rowley now directs the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management — the Cold War-era Civil Defense agency’s successor. He says outdoor warning systems seldom had the desired effect in places without tornadoes. The generic wailing sound usually created more questions than it answered.

A Warning In Your Pocket

By 1990 the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union was nearly non-existent. Even if the Russians wanted to attack, by then, intercontinental ballistic missiles cut the warning time from hours to minutes, making a wide-scale evacuation virtually impossible.

On top of that, the Phoenix Metro population nearly tripled between 1960 and 1990. The area was sprawling too fast for an outdoor warning system to keep up.

“By the early to mid-1990s, the system would have been going more and more into disrepair, because it was no longer supported by the manufacturer,” Rowley said.  “Civil Defense slowly morphed into the function of emergency management, there would become less and less of a focus on the civil defense aspect of it and more of an all hazards focus.”

Technological advances enabled emergency managers like Rowley to greatly improve emergency alerting. Instead of activating a loud wailing sound citywide, authorities can target individual neighborhoods with specific information.

“I would say that the single biggest improvement in modern technology for public alert and warning is the ability to target the warning to just the affected area,” Rowley explained. 

“I would say that the single biggest improvement in modern technology for public alert and warning is the ability to target the warning to just the affected area.” — Rob Rowley, Maricopa County/span>

Think of the emergency alerts on your phone.

“We draw a polygon on a map of an area we want the warning to go to. And then generally that warning will go to just that area,” Rowley said. “Whereas the old legacy systems such as sirens or the emergency alert system, there is no targeting with those systems. So a lot more people get the message that don’t necessarily need to see it or hear it.”

Rowley says nobody knows exactly when or why the outdoor siren system was disconnected. Records were lost when the agency moved offices in the late 1990s.

“The cost to replace it as the Phoenix metro area grew was probably a very large number - so it would be competing with other major capital projects at the time,” Rowley said. 

Some of the old sirens sat rotting on their poles and rooftops for decades while more advanced and easier-maintained systems took their place. Several were removed when the buildings they were mounted on were either remodeled or demolished, including sirens mounted on Monte Vista Elementary School in Phoenix and Tonalea Elementary school in Scottsdale.

As of October 2020, there is only one known remaining piece of this once-ubiquitous system: a siren mounted to the roof of Phoenix Fire Station 22 in South Phoenix.

Collectors' Items

Decades after the system was decommissioned, the county began removing the sirens and selling them at auction.

Some ended up in museums. One ended up in the town of Beebe, Arkansas, and is used to warn residents of impending tornadoes. And many landed in the hands of collectors, like Scott Nelson of Mesa. Along with several classic cars, Nelson collects and restores air-raid sirens he’s gathered from across the country.

“What I do, either with air-raid sirens or restoring vintage cars or fountain pens or watches or antiques, it’s all kind of tangible history, and wanting to preserve that story,” Nelson said. “Instead of watching a video, or reading about it on the internet or in a book, why not have something that’s representative of that time period, what was going on.”

Nelson, 22, had the enormous yellow air-raid siren set up in his driveway. It took up as much space as a small sport utility vehicle, and required Nelson to run special wiring directly to the house’s breaker panel.

In its previous life, the 1950s-era Federal Signal Thunderbolt siren sat atop Metro Tech High School near 19th Ave. and Thomas Road in Phoenix. Nelson bought it at auction for a little under $1,000.

Now, it’s a project for Nelson and his father — both eager to give the KJZZ reporter (and everybody within a 1.5-mile radius) the full experience. All of his neighbors know of his hobby.

“To ring in the new year, some people bang pots and pans. We set off air-raid sirens,” Nelson said. “Generally (my neighbors) have been supportive. It brings people outside, ‘What’s that noise?’ Especially for Arizona, we don’t have tornadoes, or hurricanes, or tsunamis. It attracts a lot of attention, and I haven’t had the cops called — yet.”

Nelson tinkers with the wiring in the control panel and explains how he can control the pitch.

“You can have it really high pitched and travel farther, or you can have it lower pitched with more bass and it can actually punch through buildings,” Nelson explained, as he set it to level 2: about as low-pitched and deep as it could go.

“That will vibrate your chest more,” his dad explained.

Nelson set up his camera across the street to record the test for his YouTube channel. He counts down, presses the button and the siren roars to life.

100 feet away, the 127-decibel sound is astonishingly powerful. It doesn’t feel like your chest is vibrating — it feels like it’s getting kicked. Even with hearing protection designed for shooting ranges, the sound makes one’s ears ring.

What was once designed to get people to take shelter now draws them out of their houses to check out the commotion — and Nelson takes great pride in explaining his collector’s item to his curious neighbors.

“That was amazing,” one neighbor said. “You could really feel it.”

“It’s outstanding,” Nelson replied.

The Cold War ended more than 30 years ago. What was once a frightening part of everyday life in Arizona during an anxious time in the 20th century is now another collectible antique.

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Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.