I’ve always had an abiding interest in the history and culture of the Cold War, that nearly fifty-year span of the 20th Century when the United States and Soviet Union vied for global power and threatened each other, and the world ,with nuclear obliteration. It’s also chilling to learn how each country busily made plans to try to survive an atomic holocaust by creating civil defense programs, building bomb shelters and developing warning systems and evacuation plans for major cities.

Artifacts of that chapter of Cold War history can be still be found in neighborhoods across Los Angeles in the forms of long-neglected civil defense sirens sitting atop now rusty towers. During the height of the Cold War there were more than 250 civil defense siren towers, which, when activated, were supposed to alert people about a coming Russian attack so they could find shelter.

They don’t work now, but during the era when World War III looked like it could break out at anytime, the sirens were supposed to warn people about an impending nuclear attack. If people heard the sirens blare, they were supposed to seek shelter until after the atomic bombs had fallen. (Of course no one knows what people were supposed to do after L.A. had been turned into a prairie of nuclear ash.)

That last test of L.A.’s civil defense sirens was in the 1980s. Since then, the sirens have been ignored and allowed to deteriorate.

Dennis Hanley calls himself the “siren hunter.” He’s spent years finding and documenting L.A.’s Cold War-era civil defense sirens.

One man who’s fascinated with these old sirens is Dennis Hanley. As a self-described siren hunter, he’s spent years finding and mapping L.A.’s old civil defense sirens and taking photos of them.

Listen to my profile of Hanley’s work and learn more about L.A.s civil defense towers below:

 

If you want to hear more sounds of the Cold War, from civil defense messages to groovy music, check out Conelrad, a website that pays homage to Cold War pop culture. If you want an example of how Americans were preparing themselves for surviving a nuclear war, check out this civil defense PSA from the early 1950s. It’s called “Duck and Cover” and is aimed at school kids.

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  • Rory O'Brien

    Great story! I grew up near Louise and Saticoy and I clearly remember the tests of these sirens in the early '60's. At the epicenter of our aerospace and defense industries in the Valley, I guess we would have been among the first to go. As a six year old (at Anatola Avenue Elementary School) I don't remember anyone telling us that the nuclear attack would be followed by 900 mile per hour winds!

  • Diane Isaacs

    I believe there's a siren on the southwest bank of the "lake" in Upper Franklin Canyon. The lake used to be the reservoir for Beverly Hills, but it was put out of service when the level was lowered in the 80s. Now the reservoir is in the lower canyon, with no public access.

  • Ms. Geek

    There's one in Panorama City, near Van Nuys and Lanark. And yeah, prolly dead.

  • http://losangelesairraidsirens.com siren fan

    There is a map of where most of them are located at losnagelesairraidsirens.com

  • Gerry

    They still test them up here in the Bay Area. Every Tuesday at noon, in downtown San Francisco, and every first Wednesday in Oakland, they're tested.

  • Herr Müller

    Typo on the link posted by Siren Fan: It's losangelesairraidsirens.com

  • Susan cooley

    There is a siren at the corner of Olive and West 1st St downtown opposite the court house. More particularly, just about a quarter of a block down Olive on the north side of the street in front of a multi story parking lot. The lot is set for demolition. I am concerned that with the parking lot, the siren will also become a thing of the past.

  • Charles Murray

    There is quite a following for the sirens, and they were part of my upbringing in West LA in the 1970s. Dennis Hanley has done a great job to document the remaining sirens installed in LA County. I am an air raid siren collector myself, and I used to look forward to the tests at 10AM the last Friday of the month, with the last test being Friday, 1/31/86. I have acquired and restored several Cold War sirens, and in fact I sound one (a 130-db @ 100ft Federal Thunderbolt 1000T supercharged siren), every last Friday of the month for nostalgia at our ranch in Moorpark. Been doing it every last Friday here since April of '07.

    Charles

  • Jort Heplplatz

    where's the guy's map that he made of these?

  • Saul

    Charles, we have to come up and see..and hear… your sirens!!

  • Don Hanley

    The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October 1962. President Kennedy addressed the nation on the 22nd of the month. This was a scary time to put it mildly. As a teenager, I remember the fact that the scheduled air-raid siren test of the last Friday of the month, October 26, was cancelled due to the panic it would create. To my knowledge, this was the only time in that era that the sirens did not sound on the scheduled day and time.

  • Luis Bello

    My fist full time employment was for a credit union in down town LA in 1984, and every last friday of the month those sirens woud go off. It was sort of erie, sounded like an air raid was about to begin.

  • C Bryant

    Long Beach tested its C. D. sirens through November 1990 about six years after L. A. county & City
    stopped testing. In December 1970 the Siren Test was cancelled ( by then the late Sheriff Peter J Pitches ) , last Friday of the month was
    Christmas day in that year .
    Manhatten beach sounded its Sirens on Friday Oct 26, 1962 . Half of south Bay could hear them !
    It, the test, was a tad more erie on that day ! !
    A comment was in the Letters to the Editor of the Los Angeles Hearld Examiner or Los Angeles
    Times one or two days later .
    Manhattan Beach had a system of about 7 sirens ,a mix of
    Federal Signal model # 2 and # 3 as well as one Federal SD-10 at Mira Costa High School ,
    Too bad some Sirens were not saved for Tsunami alerts !!

  • http://www.chaseevans.co.uk/ Virginia J. Smith

    Are they still functional? I think they can be used for emergency response for civilian evacuation like earthquakes and tsunamis. I have always found them eery in sounding.

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