Low-tech icon of past still useful in modern age

 - 
12/16/2010

I recently saw a newspaper story about a New York community considering the removal of its 75 fire alarm call boxes.

What surprised me about the Albany Times Union story was not so much that Rensselaer, N.Y. was thinking about taking its old-fashioned fire boxes down off telephone poles because they’d outlived their usefulness, but that those red-and-white icons first invented nearly 160 years ago still exist in 2010—and in relatively large numbers in that city.

The boxes were a common sight when I was a kid growing up in Michigan, but so were squat black rotary phones in every household then. I thought the world had moved on.

 

This Albany Times Union photo depicts a firebox in New York.

 

But then I talked to Ken Willette, manager of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Protection Division, and found out that other communities around the nation still use call boxes. The NFPA doesn’t keep track of the numbers of fireboxes out there, but Willette, a former fire chief in Massachusetts, said he knows from experience that they’re still a part of firefighting.

 

And Willette said that’s because while the boxes have their drawbacks—they can be a cause of prank false alarms by kids—they also can have benefits, even in the 21st century.

 

For example, he said, they still can be “a lifeline” in poor neighborhoods where residents may not be able to afford the cell phones that people typically now use to alert the fire department of an emergency.

Also, Willette said, when he was fire chief in Concord, Mass. from 2003-2008, the fire department installed one at a skate park so youngsters could call for help in the event of an injury. In three years, he said, “we had maybe two or three times the call box was utilized by teenagers to call for an ambulance … I feel really good about that.”

Fireboxes were introduced in 1852, according to the Times Union. And the paper said the Rensselaer boxes were made by The Gamewell Co.—still doing business today as Gamewell-FCI, a division of Honeywell.

The boxes were in use in hundreds of cities nationwide by 1890, the article said.

But in the 1970s, when false fire alarms caused by “malicious activation” of the fireboxes became big news, a number of them began to be eliminated, according to an NFPA report this fall on false alarm activity in the nation. Today, the report said, the biggest problem with false alarms is no longer call boxes but “nuisance activation of automatic detection systems.”

Despite being thinned out, fireboxes still are around and one reason is that their old-fashioned simplicity makes them useful in emergencies, according to Willette.

“One thing I’ll tell you about the telegraph fire alarm box system is it’s low-tech,” he said. “ … The boxes themselves are mechanical so they’re able to remain in service. There are boxes operating today that are nearly 100 years old, so they’re withstood the test of technology.”

He continued: “They’re low-tech, they’re durable and they don’t depend on electricity. They use electricity with a battery backup … and the attractiveness from an emergency management point of view is that, if the Internet goes down, if you lose electrical power, if the cell towers go down, that system still operates.”

To deal with prank alarm issues, Willette said, a lot of communities have taken such steps as moving the call boxes into areas less prone to such activity or even into buildings, and they’ve added other features, such as a voice feature where you have to pick up a handset and talk to dispatcher.

Also, he said, “they do have alarm boxes now where you don’t have to connect with a wire, and you send a radio signal and those are very robust, very secure and they tend to have few false activations … so some communities have gone to that.”

In the end, Willette said, it’s up to individual towns and cities to decide if fireboxes are still useful to them in this modern age.

“A community has to balance the risks and the costs against the benefit in their specific community,” he said.