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Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller

SocietyJanuary 31, 2024

Is the world about to end? No, it’s just the volunteer firefighters’ siren

Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller

It’s a familiar sound to those in certain areas of the country, but it can scare the shit out of unaware visitors – as Liv Sisson’s family recently found out.

On a recent night in the tiny, remote South Island town of Franz Josef, my siblings – who were visiting New Zealand for the very first time – were sleeping soundly in their motel room. Our group had arrived at 5pm the day prior. We’d checked in at the exact same moment as five tour buses; the motel was packed.

After a pub meal and a surprise kea sighting we retired for the evening. The group was tired after a long drive, but not too tired to pile into one room and watch a Will Ferrell movie – the one where he fights a grizzly in his undies – before bed.

Fast forward to 1am. A loud and unrelenting alarm begins to sound. My parents rise. Then they remember an innkeeper at a previous stop on the road trip had warned them about this. In our room, my partner closes the window. I do not stir.

My sister Phoebe and brother Denison, meanwhile, are like… “What the fuck is that?”

The alarm is so loud they think it must be in their room. Denison checks his phone charger… is it on fire? No. Phoebe checks hers. Also not on fire. 

“And then it hits us. It’s something outside. It’s a gas leak, a fire, an evacuation… there could be a tsunami coming. All of New Zealand is right by the ocean!”

Earthquakes then cross their minds. Denison recalls that he slept through the 2011 Virginia earthquake which cracked the Washington Monument. He was napping and also five but thinks, “OK, maybe I’ve done that again.”

The pair discuss what to do. “There are no other sounds. No one is gathering outside. No one has even left their room,” Phoebe says. They are spooked, and agree they need to exit.

Phoebe and Denison (Photo: Liv Sisson)

Denison grabs his jandals and Kathmandu puffer jacket (his adopted uniform for the trip) and goes to yank open the door. Phoebe yells, “STOP! We have no idea what’s on the other side. A fire? An invading foreign army?” The door has no peephole. 

The safest exit option is the other door. Which is glass. And also a balcony. “But at least we could see out of it,” she said.

Phoebe and Denison stand on said balcony. They peer into the pitch black Franz Josef night. They can barely hear one another over the shrill siren. Shouting, they debate their next move. This is where the siblings part ways.

Did Denison leave Phoebe behind? Or did Phoebe make him go alone? The jury is still out.

Denison scales the balcony. He’s on a mission: proceed across the way to reception, ask what the hell is going on. Adrenaline pumping, he sprints through the darkness. He makes it but the door is locked. Then he sees a sign: “Dial zero for reception”. He does so and thinks “Great, someone will soon explain this to me.” 

The phone rings. Rings. And rings some more. Meanwhile, the alarm fades. Denison hangs up and turns to face the night. It is now completely silent. 

“No one is around. I am all alone. An eerie quiet settles over me. The Twilight Zone theme begins playing in my head. I think OK, everything is over. I’m in another dimension. There must be an alien behind me. I am the designated survivor of the human race.”

But luckily, he isn’t. He sprints back across the motel lawn, sees Phoebe, yells “get inside” and bounds back up the balcony “military style”.

Phoebe shuts the curtains. “Denison reports no one was at reception. Our family members have not been heard from. Now I’m fucking scared too.” She texts the family group chat: “Did anyone else hear that loudass alarm?” She calls us multiple times. No one answers. 

The siblings cannot remember which rooms the rest of us are in. So, resourcefully, they start researching New Zealand alarms.

Their first search returns the tsunami siren. They wonder if they should get to higher ground. They check the news. Nothing. They navigate to the Franz Josef fire station’s website, which says “If you’re cooked, stay off the stove” and offers recipes to make if you’re drunk or high. 

They then cycle through recordings of various NZ emergency sounds. They play audio samples back and forth asking each other, “Was that it?!”

Finally they land on one that sounds familiar. And next to it, a note explaining that many small New Zealand towns have fire sirens, which summon volunteer firefighters. 

At 3.15am, the siblings finally have their answer. They are not being abducted by aliens. And a tsunami was not on the way. The two eventually get back to sleep. The next morning Phoebe and Denison were 0% keen to see the glacier – Franz Josef’s main/only attraction. All the wanted was a hot breakfast. 

The family post-alarm (Photo: Liv Sisson)

Their story brings up a few thoughts. Firstly, I hope whoever was in need hadn’t been cooking cooked. And if they were, I hope they’re OK. 

Secondly, what’s up with these alarms? Surely in 2024 there are more advanced and less terrifying tech solutions at our disposal? I briefly looked into this, and the resounding answer is: “No, there’s not.” Fire sirens remain the most reliable way to summon our volunteer firefighters. On further reflection this makes total sense – I’m out of data half the time.

So what could be done to save other tourists from my siblings’ fate? I have some ideas. A warning in the Air New Zealand safety video, perhaps. A note in your customs card. An explainer on the answering machines of reception desks around the country…

At the very least, motels should probably warn their guests. And make sure all of them get the memo.

Keep going!