For Fire Alarms, Boston Still Relies on … the Telegraph?!

The telegraph-based fire alarm box above at Mission Hill was used in 2012 to call the fire department in a two-alarm fire that injured two people.
The telegraph-based fire alarm box above at Mission Hill was used in 2012 to call the fire department in a two-alarm fire that injured two people. –Barry Chin/The Boston Globe

In 1852, Boston took a major technological step forward. It became the first city in the world to use the telegraph as part of a municipal fire alarm warning system. Fire alarm boxes, placed on street corners, promised to electronically send alert messages to officials far quicker than the old method of, well, yelling. Boston paved the way for towns and cities across America to begin using the fire alarm boxes, putting the Hub at the forefront of innovation.

Now, 162 years later, Boston still relies on 3,462 telegraph-based alarms to alert the fire department. In an age of cell phones and satellites, the telegraph lives on in these red relics.

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“We know people by and large, when reporting something, they use telephones,’’ Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald told Boston.com, adding that officials view the continued use of the telegraph-based system as “a small price to pay as an insurance policy.’’

To use the telegram alarm boxes, pull down the white cover and then pull on the lever inside. —Eric Levenson/Boston.com

How the Boxes Work

Miles of copper wiring throughout the city connect each alarm box to an electronic grid. Inside each box is a clock-like mechanism, as Boston Fire Historical Society explains.

First, the force exerted by pulling down on the lever causes a gear inside the box to spin. Each box is identified by a specific number, and the spinning gear has a series of notches on its outer edge that correlates with that number. For example, the outer edge of the gear inside box 1818 has one notch, then a space, then eight notches, then a space, then one notch, a space, and eight notches.

Spinning gears complete electric circuits, which transmit information via copper wires to the Fire Alarm Office. On the fire department’s end, the message 1-8-1-8 appears on a computer to show an alarm was sounded, and where.

Boston’s computer makes the location process relatively quick, but the fire alarm systems of other Massachusetts towns aren’t quite so advanced. Incoming telegraph messages in Milton, for example, work by punching holes in a piece of paper, according to Milton Fire Chief John Grant.

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So if someone pulls alarm box number 57, the message will be sent to the dispatch office with five holes in a piece of paper, a space, and then seven more holes. Fire department dispatchers then turn that hole-filled paper into coordinates to send a team.

“It’s obviously old technology, but it’s fairly simple,’’ Grant said. “They work.’’

Essentially, you pull the lever and the fire department knows it.

The Cost to Boston

Boston employs a crew of a dozen or so who keep the telegraph system running. That includes a couple of administrators and about 8 to 10 workers in the field, who do electrical work and general repairs.

The workers are general tradesmen with electrical and mechanical backgrounds, but not telegraph specialists. They learn the system on the job, MacDonald said.

The entire alarm box system is budgeted under the Fire Alarm Program, which oversees all dispatches and calls to the BFD and has a 2014 budget of $8.1 million [PDF]. Maintenance of just the alarm box system cost the city $1.8 million in 2012, and MacDonald similarly noted the 2014 budget cost less than 1 percent of the fire department’s entire $185 million budget.

An Imperfect System

Old technology comes with problems. For one, the alarms don’t allow the alarm-puller to provide additional information to dispatchers. “You don’t know who’s pulling it or for what,’’ MacDonald said.

That leads to a lot of misused resources. Last year, about 90 percent of alarm box pulls were false alarms. Compare that exceedingly high rate to the overall false alarm average of 17.3 percent in 2012. That means a pull on the telegraph-based boxes is five times more likely to be a false alarm.

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MacDonald acknowledged the false alarm issue, but said the overall number of alarm box pulls is low compared to regular 9-1-1 calls.

“We understand people pull false alarms from time to time,’’ MacDonald said. “It’s just part of having a system like that.’’

Last year, the city of Boston put out a call for ideas of how to upgrade the boxes, and one suggestion was to turn them into wifi hotspots. The turnover in City Hall put the exploration of viable alternatives on the backburner, but MacDonald said he anticipates future changes to the system.

“With the new administration that is very tech-savvy and looking for ways to move forward with all the technology that’s out there, we do anticipate them coming up with other ways to use [the boxes], to augment what their purpose is,’’ MacDonald said.

As they work now, though, the boxes do still come in handy every so often. Two years ago, the fire alarm box played a key role in saving two lives during a Boston blaze.

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