They stand like sentinels on sidewalks, providing a subtle sense of security and a touch of nostalgia. But fire alarm boxes - so common on our streets for more than a century - may not survive the high-tech age of enhanced 911, cellphones, and GPS devices.
The familiar red boxes are slowly disappearing, as cities and towns deem them obsolete. In doing so, those communities follow the lead of some of the nation's major cities. Washington, D.C., for example, has commissioned local artists to decorate the now-defunct boxes.
Still, several south of Boston communities - including Braintree, Brockton, Dedham, Hingham, Milton, Plymouth, Quincy, Sharon, and Wareham - have held fast to these old-fashioned devices.
Local fire officials say the wireless world hasn't negated their value. They point to the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellphone networks became overloaded. And in a blackout, they say, people can't recharge their hand-held devices.
Brockton Fire Chief Ken Galligan describes his city's street-corner boxes as "a security blanket for the community" that can overcome any language barrier. That's especially helpful for a city like Brockton, where more than 30,000 residents speak a language other than English. "I call it our multi-linguistic call box system," he said.
Mounted on black pedestals and telephone poles around the city are red boxes shaped like a miniature house, each with a white pull handle. Its purpose is spelled out plainly in capital letters: "FOR FIRE." "OPEN THEN PULL DOWN HOOK."
When the lever is pulled, a metal wheel inside the box turns, transmitting a signal via telegraph to the local fire department.
Although most emergency calls are made through 911 telephone lines, the old-fashioned system still earns its keep. One recent example was on Dec. 11, when the Brockton Fire Department was dispatched to a house fire on Hamilton Street. The first notification came through a Gamewell alarm box at the corner of Hamilton and Belmont streets, Galligan said.
The municipal fire alarm system got its start in Massachusetts. It was developed by Moses Farmer, an engineer, 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.
The system's independent operation makes it valuable in an age of uncertainty. Because it does not operate on electric or telephone lines, it 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. And when an earthquake struck San Francisco in 1989, phone lines went down and power went out - but the municipal street telegraph boxes continued to work.
But for many communities, the added security is not worth the cost. Eliminating the system saves money on maintenance, they say. Sacramento officials estimate that the move to dismantle its system will save $500,000 annually in operational, maintenance, and support costs.
Some smaller municipalities in Massachusetts - including Cohasset, Hull, Foxborough, Scituate, Walpole, and Weymouth - have done the same.
Weymouth installed its first Gamewell fire alarm system in 1888. The town recently decided the old hard-wired telegraph system was too expensive to maintain, and opted to switch to a new alarm box system that transmits radio signals directly to the fire department.
Walpole started phasing out its deteriorating fire alarm boxes three years ago. "The New England weather does a number on these wires," said Deputy Fire Chief Michael Laracy.
Laracy said he hasn't heard any concerns about the transition.
"We're just replacing old technology with new technology," he said.
Hull scrapped its telegraph system over a decade ago, according to Acting Fire Chief Robert A. Hollingshead. The old boxes had been in town for a long time, and required constant maintenance, he said. "We're right on the ocean, and the salt water was wreaking havoc on our system."
More than 150 alarm boxes were removed from the streets of Hull and auctioned off as surplus property. The town now uses eight radio-controlled boxes that are placed at playgrounds, parks, and public areas by the beach. Businesses in town must use private fire alarm services in their buildings.
"The need for those master boxes is still there. . . . They certainly have a role," Hollingshead said. "But it depends on the demographics of the community, and the maintenance costs. If cost-benefit ratio is there, they're truly valuable. It's up to each community to decide."
Gamewell was acquired by
"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 and towns have auctioned off their remnants as antiques.
"They've become a hot collector's item," said Welch.
Boxes have sold for several hundred dollars on
One enterprising Norwood resident recently posted an ad on South Shore's Craigslist classifieds, offering a Gamewell fire alarm pull box for $400: "Amazing like new condition, never used. Circa 1974. Complete with paperwork. Great for a collector or perhaps put into use?"
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.