City looks to bring 19th-century fire-alarm boxes into the 21st century

Government Technology reports Boston is looking for proposals from vendors on how to upgrade the city's network of 2,200 fire alarm boxes, which still use the same basic telegraph technology as when they were first installed in 1852.

"We're interested in having multiple communication types and really enhancing the ability to send more specific messages so that we can use them for both emergency and non-emergency purposes, but also get more specific messages," [Deputy Fire Commissioner Justin] Brown said. "Is this actually a fire? Is this a law enforcement call? Do you need medical assistance? And maybe be able to communicate back and forth."

When an alarm on one of the boxes is pulled, it sends a series of tones to the department's dispatching center, identifying its number, which dispatchers then use to dispatch firefighters. Even when calls come in via more modern technologies, such as telephones, dispatchers always identify the nearest alarm box in their broadcasts to fire crews.

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    Cell Phone with Solar Panel

    I've seen stand alone pull boxes which look like the traditional ones but they have a solar panel on the top which powers a dedicated cell phone inside the box. When the lever is pulled the cell phone automatically connects to the dispatcher's system and transmits the relevant location info. Presumably they have versions with a speaker/microphone (like the MBTA emergency boxes) which would let someone give the dispatcher more info. Since it's solar powered you can put them anywhere and they don't require much maintenance or installation. Simple solution.

    I find it interesting that fire pull boxes outlasted pay phones as public fixtures. If they don't replace them soon they might outlive newspaper vending machines and blue mailboxes too.

    Here's an idea: replace the

    By on

    Here's an idea: replace the call boxes with pay phones.

    Then you could call 911, or make a regular call if you don't have a working cell phone for whatever reason.

    A lot of college campuses did this. You can often call 800 numbers from these phones without the pay phone 800 number surcharge, even if the phone says, "For campus calls only."

    If they could invent a non-cash pay phone that doesn't screw you with obscene credit card rates and fees, there wouldn't be any more maintenance than for a dedicated emergency call box with voice capability.

    Maybe they could even make a solar-powered pay phone that uses the cell network. That would have no wiring to install at all.

    No interest from AT&T or Verizon

    The phone companies have had the ability to deploy boxes like that for decades and yet they haven't. This leads one to believe that they have studied the issue and found the profit they'd gain from installing them isn't worth it.

    The good thing about public emergency only boxes is that they don't get tied up by someone using them for non-emergency purposes. All the few remaining pay phones seem to be used nearly exclusively by drug dealers and others who don't want to be linked to a phone. This seems to be why business owners are having them removed from private property. At least that was the case with the liquor store nearby.

    All the college ones I know of only work for on-campus numbers and thus are rarely used anymore.

    [citations needed]

    By on

    I'm not a drug dealer, and I use pay phones. The people I see using phones at T stations and other busy places don't look like drug dealers either.

    How would a dealer do anything useful with a pay phone that doesn't take incoming calls?

    Have you ever even heard of someone who couldn't make an emergency call because someone else wouldn't get off a pay phone?

    Questionable practices... Requests for Bids.

    By on

    City of Boston Requests for Bids are a questionable practice. For example the Requests for Bids for City Stenographer this year are handled by the City Council not by Purchasing overseen by the Boston Finance Commission. Sham practices that are not properly reviewed, not even by metro journalists ingratiated to leaders just to get some bits of little news that does get out from behind the scenes.

    Cameras

    By on

    Since they have problems with pranksters pulling false alarms, it might make sense to add cameras.

    Yes according to this

    By on

    From http://www.cityofboston.gov/news/uploads/22075_1_1... :

    "Another major reason for the upgrade is the frequency of false alarms with the current system. Every time an alarm is pulled, it must be manually reset. According to Brown, between January and September of last year, each of the city’s three busiest alarm boxes were pulled 10 times. Every one of those instances was a false alarm. Throughout the
    year, the Fire Department deals with false alarms roughly 90 percent of the time."

    Is this actually a good idea?

    The old technology may be creaky and obsolescent, but it has been shown to work well. Will a new system based on the cellphone network be as reliable, especially in a Sandy sort of disaster?

    Does anyone really use these

    By on

    Does anyone really use these things? Seriously, even before cell phones became universal, I think people would have called from their houses. I remember running into a fire dept crew doing some maintenance work on the alarms on my block, there were three guys watching one guy work and I got that sinking suspicion this was one of those things. Can you imagine a house really burning down for lack of a nearby alarm box in 2013?

    Does anyone really use these

    By on

    Does anyone really use these things? Seriously, even before cell phones became universal, I think people would have called from their houses.

    They're older than that. The first fire call boxes in Boston were installed over twenty years before the telephone was invented (in Boston). They haven't been particularly useful for at least 30 years or so now, but I see no reason to get rid of them if they can be improved for other emergency services and voice communications.

    If your cellphone got stolen and you could use one to call the police, that would be handy right there.

    Minutes count...

    By on

    Can you imagine a house really burning down for lack of a nearby alarm box in 2013?
    - Yes
    Minutes count when saving lives in a fire, and having a secondary notification system is worth the cost if its saving a member of my family.

    When a box is pulled, the springs inside generates the electric power to send the signal, so these boxes will work and can be the only way of sending a request for help during a significantly long power outage when all of the phone batteries have died.

    http://www.bostonfirehistory.org/firealarmhardware...

    Every call 911 from a cel phone?

    By on

    First they ask what state you are in and then there is a slight delay connecting you to the state police dispatch.

    Next, they ask you what city you are in - and that can be tricky if you are near a city line.

    Once they figure that out, they patch you through to (hopefully) the right dispatch system.

    As someone who was biking by as a fire flared up on a tenament porch one cold December evening a few years ago, I would have much preferred a call box to fishing out my cel phone, having to figure out that I was still in Somerville and not Cambridge, and going through three dispatchers before finally getting the Somerville FD (which then arrived within to minutes).

    Yes. If you flip through

    Yes.

    If you flip through recent UHub archives, at least one recent multiple alarm fire was "reported" by pulling the box. I can think of a couple of car crashes and other times people have been injured that the boxes have been pulled in the past year or two.

    The system works, its instantaneous (when you call 911 on a cell phone, you talk to the State Police first, who then transfer you to Boston Fire, where you give the details a second time, that all increases the time it takes for a response to an incident)

    And then theres our recent example where a significant portion of the city was without power for several days, cell phones still worked, but what if you couldnt find a place to charge it?

    Call boxes aren't always

    By on

    Call boxes aren't always instantaneous. If another box on the circuit is transmitting an alarm, your box will wait for it to finish. If it has to wait for several other boxes, the spring will wind down and it won't be able to send the alarm at all.

    And then when the fire department arrives, they have to figure out where in the neighborhood the actual emergency is, which takes more time. Back in like the 1940s, they made a big effort to educate people that they *had* to stay near the box after they pulled it, to tell the fire department where to go. Who has any idea today that they're supposed to do that?

    These boxes have a very high rate of false alarms.

    The fire department also has to send around crews to wind up all the springs from time to time.

    If you want to get help instantly, program the direct emergency numbers for the cities where you live and work into your phone.

    These things can be real

    By on

    These things can be real lifesavers in a disaster where traditional means of communication are down. I heard that on 9/11 they were invaluable in manhattan for summoning assistance when the cell network and 911 systems were overwhelmed. If I were to ever witness something on the street that needed a fire or medical response and a box was nearby, I'd pull the box first and take out my cell phone second. These things will get you help much quicker.

    Fire Call Boxes

    I have lived in Dorchester for seven years and I would be hard pressed to even find one in an emergency. Generally speaking I think that in a 9/11 or Sandy disaster relying on a call box to get fast assistance would be foolhardy.

    And I know exactly where the nearest box is

    By on

    It's about four doors down on the left from our house. Never had any reason to use it, fortunately, but if it were 3 a.m. and we all rushed out of the house because it was on fire, and I left my cell phone inside, you bet I'd use it.

    Even if I had my cell phone

    Even if I had my cell phone on me, if I knew a box was nearby (there always is one in the city), Id be walking towards it as I dial 911. By the time you finish talking to at least 2 different dispatchers, by calling from a cell phone, if youve also pulled the box, theres an Engine and a Ladder already on the way. That could make the difference between your house being saved, and more importantly, someones life being saved or not.

    Attention Boston residents.

    By on

    Attention Boston residents. If you live in Boston, you should add the number, 617-343-4911, into your cell phone contacts. That number will connect you directly to Boston Police 911 dispatch, not the State Police.

    911 Now Connects You to BPD inside Boston

    By on

    Went to a community meeting last week and Superintendent Evans said they have changed over the system. 911 within city limits now connects directly to Boston 911 dispatch, not the state police. Possible there are a couple of border areas I'm guessing you might need the 343-4911 number though.

    As most residents know, you are supposed to call 911 to reach the police even for non-emergency situations. He said simply respond to the dispatcher "This is not an emergency" and then state your complaint - noise disturbance etc.

    And your plan would be?

    By on

    Generally speaking I think that in a 9/11 or Sandy disaster relying on a call box to get fast assistance would be foolhardy.

    So, with cel service down and no power you are going to fart into the wind in morse code, instead? Ya, that's really clever.

    You are either foolhardy or you must be too young to Never Forget. The phone systems in Boston jammed so badly on 9/11 that our workplace backup plan, in the event that a hysterical and grieving coworker had a coronary (yes, this WAS a possibility), was to use the call box. They are a vital line of back up when you can't get through any other way ... or, as Adam pointed out, you run first, find a phone later.

    How about municipal wifi?

    By on

    These things could b easily repurposed as part of a municipal wifi scheme, like the one Mumbles announced years ago that never went anywhere. These pull boxes are a relic and should go the way of gas street lights.

    Wireless is not going to be

    By on

    Wireless is not going to be anywhere near as reliable as the pull box system. The boxes are still in use because they work, period. Private alarms are also tied into the system. Not sure about Boston, but here every building over a certain size must be tied in even if they have other means of signalling in use. Are private properties going to be accomodated in any new system ? That old analog two wire system has yet to be improved upon.