What is that sound?

fog horns by flickr joelmutateSean emails with a question that's not really an Ask AOA question -- it's more of "What the heck is that?" question:

I have lived in Center Square for about three years and I work downtown (right off N. Pearl St). About 2-3 times a week I hear a random sound that sounds a bit like a high pitched fog horn. It's usually 3-5, short (2 or 3 seconds) blasts which distinguish it from the the longer, deeper pitched fog horn you would associate with an active harbor. It almost has an alarm like quality to it.
The strange thing is, I can hear it at home and at work. While it is hard to miss, it is not particularly jarring either. What's even more curious is that I have heard it all times of day, each season and in variable weather conditions.
Is it associated with the Port of Albany? The Hudson River? The rail line running under and between 787? Something different all together?
Please tell me I am not alone!

Anyone have the scoop -- or just a good guess?

photo: Flickr user joelmutate (cc)


I've been wondering this for YEARS...I can't wait to find out the answer.

Wow, what a great question! I have become so similarly accustomed (live in Center square, work downtown) I guess I have never thought twice to even question just what it was. Would love to know the answer.

Sounds like you're hearing the trains from across the river. You can actually hear them as far uptown as the Pine Hills sometimes. It's basically just timing that you hear them a few times a week by where you're standing and the way the wind blows.

I've heard the sound, too. I've noticed it echoes in a rather neat way in certain spots near the Capitol, too.

But I'm not 100% sure what it is. I've heard two explanations; it's a mutual aid siren from the other side of the river or it's from the port.

Whatever it is, I've heard it for years.

This is not the crow control?

I can't recall the source of this information, but I've been told it is a call for volunteer fireman in Rensselaer

It's a diaphone on top of the Rensselaer/Albany train station...



It sounds like the smoke monster from Lost... am I right?

Finally, I know what that is!

I hear a similar sound from my house in Colonie. I always assumed it was a signal for the volunteer firefighters out of the Fuller Road fire house.

In previous places I have lived it was a method of calling the volunteer firemen in the area.

Huh... I thought it was either from the USS Slater, Trains, and/or (depending on the location) the Firehouse near central & fuller. Now, I suppose it could be a combination of all those things. NEAT! :)

With regard to the City of Rensselaer siren (which I can hear from my office in downtown Albany) - if you count the blasts and check this chart, you can figure out the approximate location of the fire:


For example, if you hear *seven blasts* *pause* *two blasts* (repeat sequence), you know that the fire is near the Amtrak Turbo facility.

I live in Rensselaer, so I appreciate being able to hear the horn - if I hear the blast pattern associated with my neighborhood, I know that I need to call a neighbor and make sure that it's not my house that's on fire...

As others have mentioned, it's likely a fire siren. Growing up in Saratoga County I was much more used to the air-raid siren (long, very loud, one note relatively higher pitched blasts), but the Fuller Road station in Colonie which I live very near to uses the same system.

We had to call in a fire alarm (apparently the apartment buildings' systems aren't connected to a phone) and about five minutes later heard the siren (which does sound more like a horn) go off.

I have long wondered what this is and what it is so incredibly loud. I guess I still wonder why we have it and why it's so loud. Don't volunteer firemen have pagers or cell phones? They really need a huge foghorn to summon them?

I live in the Mansion Neighborhood and I have been wondering this for years!! Thanks!

I have heard that train sound since i was a child here in the Pine Hills. very soothing.

I'm almost positive it's crow control. I hear it all the time. It's too short to be a fire alarm, and I've heard it sounding from varying distances and at varying locations (SUNY uptown campus, Center Square, the Mansion neighborhood). I figure maybe it's mounted on a truck.

@Megan M. as a volunteer firefighter I can say, the "air raid" sirens are an outdated way to alert volunteers of a call. By out dated I am referring to the 1950's-1970's. Communities had them as part of civil defense system in case of a nuclear attack. However it was adopted into a firefighting notification system.
Today we have pagers via radio waves, cell phone alerting and several other options. I don't see the reason for fire sirens anymore. I know one department, who's siren is broke, and it keeps going off until someone arrives (about 5-10 minutes). It is so loud you can get temporary hearing loss from it.
Fire departments are so rooted in "tradition" that it is very difficult to talk to them about the reason they use the siren.
In Saratoga county they set off every departments siren at noon, I still don't know why this is done. Everyone has a clock and can tell time.

I think Jamie nailed it with the Rensselaer Station diaphone. I just watched this and I think this is what I am hearing. Can't speak for everyone else though!


With the amount of activity at the river, I realized it could be just about anything, which is what really piqued my interest. I never considered this though. Thanks for chiming in everyone. Nice to know I am not crazy, yet.

Yeah Sean that is what I hear every once in a while. The first time I heard it I thought it was a car alarm, then crow dispersal, then I had no idea. I live on on Oakwood St. near South Main and the sound is pretty faint but still detectable during the quiet hours. Thanks for posting this video of the source.

This is why you guys are the best... I've heard this noise my whole life growing up in Western Mass and no one could tell me what it was. The very first time I heard it in downtown Albany I thought I was going nuts! The sound had followed me!

@Megan M and DB:
I used to be volunteer firefighter elsewhere and I echo what DB said and I'll add this: during my time with the fire dept, we went from radio pagers (known as minitors) to text-based pagers to text/emails to people's cell phones (since there was no reason to keep paying for text-based pagers, which were covered by tax dollars, etc.) when text messaging was cheaper and simpler. We used to sound our roof horn (it was sounded more like an air raid sirens) when we ran actual fires out of tradition and not to call in the volunteers. Until the neighbors complained and we had to disable it. Now they only use for special occasions like funerals.

I think that Jamie's right, too; I've been at the train station when that thing's gone off, and it's LOUD. I can hear it from my place on Washington Park in Albany. (I thought it was being used for crow control, but I may be just confusing that with some other crow control plan I had heard of...) I've never heard of this use by fire departments, I'm just used to the regular air-raid/noontime klaxons. Now I have learned my something new for today. :)

Most fun place to hear it is on the Empire State Plaza, b/c the sound echoes like crazy.

I'd discount the crow control theory if you've heard the horn recently. Crows are everywhere right now. My puppy jumps and tries to catch them when they taunt him from their treetop perches. He thinks he can get to them and he's a really good jumper but not THAT good. I don't want to discourage him, though, because crows are jerks.

It's the secret code that the feds send out to high ranking officials at the DEC that the jet planes leaving Albany airport are about to release Chemtrails full of Barium, trimethyl aluminum & other biological agents to dumb down our region

Yeah, must be that I'm confusing it with something else, then. But don't let the crows hear you say they're jerks, Valarae! They know how to use tools, and hold grudges.

Today the cat saw birds fly by the bedroom window, so she jumped down and sped off to the living room in hopes of catching one. So I know where your pup's coming from.

This is why I love AOA and the hive mind. I, too, have wondered about this honking sound for years. Now, I know what it is, and that is has a cool name: the diaphone on top of the Amtrak Station.

No one should be too surprised to hear it at a distance; that's one of the features of a valley. Noises bounce quite a way. I'm two miles from the railroad tracks but on quiet summer nights can hear the trains like they're coming down my street. Years and years back, there was a mysterious wubba-wubba sound that was making folks on the Greenbush side of the river insane. It turned out to be an out-of-balance cooling fan blade on the top of the Corning Tower, which couldn't even be heard in the immediate vicinity.

So we're confident it's the diaphone on top of the Rensselaer train station -- thank you, everyone, I've been wondering that myself. But what purpose does it serve? What does it signal?

I always thought (although I think I'm wrong) that it was associated with the Livingston Avenue RR swing bridge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livingston_Avenue_Bridge), indicating when it rotates to open for passing ships on the River.

Actually the diaphone is located on a small building at 505 East Street, behind the Amtrak station.

As posted above, that is the Rensselaer fire department call. I live there, and it took me several years to find that out. Yeah! Sounds like a foghorn gone crazy!

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