Public Fire Alarms


Over the weekend, as he ate a slice of pecan pie, my friend Sam teased me for dwelling so much on the minutiae of urban life. “Next you’re going to be writing about doorknobs,” he said, “and you’ll have photos of all the doorknobs in Mile End.”

Not yet. Today, I’m looking at the public fire alarm boxes on the streets of Boston, which you can find throughout the city and its suburbs. “For Fire, Open Then Pull Down Hook,” they read. Pulling the lever activates a machine that sends a signal, by telegraph, to Boston’s fire department. While these boxes were once common across North America, they have almost all been removed or abandoned. Boston, however, has maintained a fully functional system.

Maybe that’s because they were invented there. Boston’s government commissioned the system in 1851, just five years after the invention of the telegraph, and the first box was placed into service in the spring of 1852. Since then, the number of boxes on Boston’s streets has risen from 40 to 1,259 (still down from a peak of nearly 3,000).

Even if the boxes are antiquated, Boston has no plans of getting rid of them. “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,” reported the Boston Globe in a feature published yesterday. Scrapping the boxes would save about $2 million per year. In fact, Boston nearly did get rid of them in 1983, but ultimately decided that they were worth keeping after all.

I’m glad they did. After all, if the fire alarm boxes were gone, what would I write about?

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday January 07 2008at 11:01 pm , filed under Society and Culture, United States and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Public Fire Alarms”

  • We used to have those in Montreal. If you look on the balcony of the firemen’s little museum that’s in the firehouse at the corner of Laurier and Saint-Laurent, they have one there. You can see one in the “then” photo here.

  • I heard that Montreal removed its fire boxes in the 1970s, like most other cities. NYC still has them in certain areas but I think they’re abandoned.

    Boston is probably the only large city that actually maintains the same fire-box-and-telegraph system it has had since the 1850s. The Globe article has some really good quotes from fire officials who really go out of their way to praise it.

    It makes sense to keep it. Even though it’s a lot more vulnerable to false alarms, it’s also a lot more efficient than calling 911, since you aren’t asked any questions by a dispatcher, there’s no language barrier and no ambiguity about where the alarm was pulled.