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No cause for alarm

Fire alarm boxes were created here before Bell invented the telephone. So why are we still using them?

Email|Print| Text size + By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

They stand like sentinels on city sidewalks.

Mounted on each black pedestal is a red box shaped like a miniature house, with a white pull-handle on the front, its purpose spelled out plainly in capital letters.

"FOR FIRE," it reads, then continues simply: "OPEN THEN PULL DOWN HOOK."

Whenever that lever is pulled, a metal wheel inside the box turns and transmits a signal via telegraph to the Boston Fire Department.

That's the way it was over 150 years ago, when the world's first fire-alarm telegraph boxes were invented here and horse-drawn carriages rattled down the city's cobblestone streets.

And that's the way it is today, in this age of enhanced 911, two-way radios, cellphones, and GPS devices, leaving some to wonder why the city still operates a telegraph alarm system. Many cities and towns have abandoned theirs, deeming them obsolete and too expensive to maintain. But Boston - and close neighbors Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville - have held fast to the system.

Boston fire officials say the wireless world hasn't negated the system's value. They point to the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellphone networks became overloaded. And in a blackout, they say, people can't recharge their cellphones.

The Boston Fire Department has no plans to change the street-corner box alarms, according to John P. Henderson, superintendent of its Fire Alarm Division, which oversees communications and dispatching for the department. "It's a great, great system," he said. "To have it, gives peace of mind."

Born before the phone
The world's first municipal fire-alarm system was developed by an engineer named Moses Farmer and Dr. William Channing, a Harvard-educated Bostonian who preferred tinkering with electronics to practicing medicine. Their revolutionary creation was installed in Boston in 1851, more than two decades before Alexander Graham Bell gained his patent for the telephone, and consisted of 40 miles of wire and 45 boxes. It quickly became a national model, and cities and towns across the country installed similar systems that were manufactured by the Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co. in Newton Upper Falls. By 1890, there were Gamewell systems in 500 cities and towns across the country.

But lately, call-box systems are heading toward extinction. Washington, D.C., stopped using its fire alarm boxes in the 1970s, when the city implemented its 911 communications system. More recently, the nation's capital transformed its old box-alarm network into public art, commissioning local artists to decorate the boxes.

Other cities - Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, to name a few - have also scrapped their fire-alarm boxes. Sacramento officials estimate that the city's recent move to dismantle its system will save $500,000 annually in operational, maintenance and support costs. Some smaller municipalities in Massachusetts - including Cohasset, Foxborough, Franklin, Scituate, Weymouth, and Wrentham - no longer use the boxes either.

In 2003, Honeywell International Inc. bought the manufacturer, now known as Gamewell-FCI, that dominated the fire alarm-box industry for so long. The company no longer makes new telegraph alarm systems, but continues to manufacture replacement parts and refurbish existing ones, according to spokeswoman Beth Welch.

"There are many towns across the country, and the world, that still upkeep these systems," she said. "We just help maintain them."

Welch said the company does not know how many municipalities still use the system. In recent years, some cities have auctioned their remnants off as antiques. Boxes have sold for several hundred dollars each on eBay. Some fire history buffs have converted boxes into banks, lamps and doorbells.

"They've become a hot collector's item," said Welch.

Boston itself once had plans to scrap the system. Back in 1983, then-Fire Commissioner George Paul announced his intention to phase out the city's alarm system over the next seven years, calling the boxes obsolete and the main culprit behind false alarms. Paul said over 7,000 false alarms - more than three-quarters of the total - originated through boxes on the streets each year, and each one cost the city approximately $700 in manpower, fuel, and wear and tear on department vehicles. Paul told the City Council that only 2.4 percent of the structural fires in 1982 were reported through street boxes.

But Paul's plans were never realized.

A $1.8m annual bill
Today, 1,259 Gamewell alarm boxes remain on the streets of Boston, down from 3,000 at one time, and they still work. They can be found on free-standing pedestals underneath glowing red lamps, and on telephones poles across the city. An additional 1,440 auxiliary boxes, or master boxes, are connected to internal fire-detecting systems in schools, hospitals, hotels and other buildings. Whenever heat detectors, smoke alarms or sprinklers are activated inside these buildings, a signal is automatically transmitted through the auxiliary box to the Fire Department's central alarm office.

A team of 20 Boston Fire Department employees maintains all of the boxes: Their salaries, plus equipment costs, amount to approximately $1.8 million each year, said Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group, has been advocating for the removal of the boxes since 1985. In 2001, it issued a report recommending that the Fire Department stop using the boxes, and calculated that the move would save over $2 million a year, according to bureau president Samuel R. Tyler.

"New technology has expanded the ability of people to call in emergencies," Tyler said in a telephone interview. "It's a matter of cost effectiveness. There's a better use for those dollars."

But Boston isn't the only holdout. The boxes also continue to be a part of the urban landscapes of its immediate neighbors as well as New York City, San Francisco, and Providence, and, officials say, for good reason. They praise the Gamewell system for its simplicity and dependability, and say the alarm boxes have proved their worth.

In case of any emergency
The system operates separately from electric and telephone lines, and isn't affected by power outages, downed phone lines, bad cellphone reception, or radio interference. If a major disaster knocked out power for days, and people couldn't charge their cellphones, the boxes would be a public safety lifeline.

When a computer glitch caused New York City's 911 system to crash for two hours in March 2004, the street boxes continued to work, and someone used one to report a serious fire in Brooklyn. When he was mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to get rid of the city's fire boxes, but failed. A court ruled that eliminating them would violate the rights of deaf people.

Henderson, the Boston alarm division head, prefers to call them "emergency boxes" and wants to remind the public that they can be used for any type of emergency. If someone gets injured in the street, or there's a car accident, or if there's a suspicious person following you, making you feel unsafe - all of those situations could call for pulling the white handle on a nearby alarm box.

"The role of the Fire Department is not just putting out fires," he said. "Any problem, the Fire Department is here to help."

Many communities discontinued their pull-box systems because their budgets were cut and they had let their boxes deteriorate for years, he said. Boston's system, however, is "very, very reliable and well-maintained." The boxes, by the numbers

While the boxes continue to be a source of false alarms, the number of incidents has dropped, Henderson said.

In fiscal year 2006, there were 1,104 false alarms called through street boxes. In the next fiscal year, which ended June 30, there were 873 false alarms - about 75 percent of the 1,163 total calls originating from the boxes. (The number of real calls from street boxes, then, was 290, or less than one a day.) Calls coming from master boxes in 2007 totaled 5,064.

In making the case for keeping the system, Henderson said Boston's street boxes can overcome any language barrier.

They're also helpful for people who have speech problems or are simply unfamiliar with the city, because the box transmits their exact location.

"If someone is new to the city, and don't know where they are, or if they're new to this country, and don't speak English, help is on the way, no matter what," he said.

The sheer speed and precision of the old-fashioned pull-box system is still unmatched, said Henderson. If you called 911 on your cellphone, you have to wait for the call to be routed to a dispatcher, who will then ask you a series of questions. The pull-box sends the signal instantly, no questions asked.

"The importance is that, in this day and age, fire-alarm boxes are still a fantastic, dependable system for notifying" the Fire Department of "emergencies, he said. "Technology has advanced, but they still have a place."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

In case of

emergency

STREET BOXES

IN BOSTON

1,259

MASTER BOXES -

THOSE CONNECTED

TO SCHOOLS,

HOSPITALS, OTHER

BUILDINGS -

IN BOSTON

1,440

STREET BOXES

IN CAMBRIDGE

210

MASTER BOXES

IN CAMBRIDGE

411

ANNUAL COST

OF MAINTAINING

BOSTON BOXES

$1.8 million

FALSE ALARMS

CALLED IN

THROUGH BOSTON

STREET BOXES

LAST YEAR

873

SOURCES: Boston Fire Department, Cambridge Fire Department, City of Boston

'Fire alarm boxes are still a fantastic, dependable system for notifying' the Fire Department 'of emergencies.'

Boston fire official

NO NEED TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

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