North End resident pulls fire-box alarm when call to 911 doesn't go through - and unknowingly recreates history
The Boston Fire Department reports firefighters were summoned to a fire at 94 Endicott St. in the North End around 5:14 a.m. by a resident who thought to use a street fire-alarm box when calling 911 from a phone didn't work - from the same location where the world's first ever municipal fire-box alarm was pulled in 1852.
The department reports firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze. The resident had to use a call box because of ongoing national problems that have wreaked havoc with 911 systems.
The resident used a box at Cooper and Endicott streets known as Box 1212. According to the Boston Fire Historical Society, that location was the site of the first ever fire alarm signaled by a street box, for a fire around 8:25 p.m. on April 29, 1852 - just one day after Boston turned on the world's first municipal fire-box system.
The city's street fire-box system still uses the same basic mechanism as employed in the 1852 boxes: A spring-based system inside the box generates Morse Code-like signals to a central alarm station that indicate the box's number, and so its location, without the need for fancy electronics or even an external power supply. The fire-alarm office has been located in the Fenway since 1925.
William Channing, MD, and Moses Farmer, an electrical engineer, developed the system that now includes some 1,250 street boxes. They obtained a patent for their work in 1857.
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Not to be a wet blanket
But how much does that mostly redundant system cost to maintain? Like everything, there needs to be a cost/benefit analysis and I wonder if this is a "luxury" we could do without.
Your house catch fire today?
And, yes, the system has been evaluated - it is extremely cheap to maintain.
Typical "cost cutting to levels of stupidity" thinking that brought us the lovely collapses of infrastructure bill falling due after years of moronic antitax prop 2.5 idiocy.
Thank you for confirming my suspicions
We have a President who gives comprehensive answers like this with nothing to back him up.
I note that the alert graphic (see earlier Uhub story) prominently mentions the union that gets paid to keep this ancient system working. Typical Boston.
Is your gripe with the redundant system
Or, given the slight
Is your gripe with the unions?
I'll bet anything the people at CenturyLink were non-union. How did that work out for us today?
You're trolling right?
This is an old article but at
This is an old article but at least $1.7M 7 years ago. Can’t imagine it’s gotten cheaper. https://www.wcvb.com/article/false-alarms-at-boston-fire-boxes-cost-taxp...
I don't know where they got
I don't know where they got there numbers but according to the budget, Boston will spend about 3 million on fire alarm equipment. That's all hard wired alarms connected to the fire department not just pull boxes on the street. Hospitals and schools, etc. It is an old system but it seems that they have continued to install this type of alarm in modern buildings. This article isn't a deep dive into analysis, I guess it wasn't meant to be. The title mentions false alarms but it does not explain how often that happens. It can't be a higher percentage than inappropriate 911 calls. Certainly, today shows us that it is a risk to depend on remote services.
I used to work with these
I'm in IT now, but that gives me an even greater appreciation for low-tech solutions that emphasize reliability. Those Gamewell boxes run off a hand-wound spring, like an old-fashioned alarm clock and will ring out the box number multiple times at fire alarm headquarters.
When I was working on alarms in the late 80's we were still using morse code via the telegraph key in the bottom of the box to communicate the box status and our operator license number to fire alarm HQ.
I don't think the false alarm rate is that high.
I spent a few months listening to BFD dispatch for several hours a day until I got bored and found another pastime. While there were certainly runs which were aborted due to other services getting there first and deciding that the FD wasn't needed, I heard relatively few instances of the FD arriving and finding nothing at all to act on (compared to cases where a legitimate concern caused the call).
In light of the fact that
In light of the fact that critical infrastructure (the 911 service) now appears to be dependent on equipment in another state, I would say that this system is even MORE critical to maintain. We should also be pressuring our representatives to cancel whatever contract got us here, and bring 911 services back into Massachusetts.
I'd prefer they redirect the
I'd prefer they redirect the call box budget into making the 911 system resilient.
Besides all the money spent on maintaining a separate set of wires across the city, staffing the alarm office, and driving around winding up the springs, there's also the basic fact that call boxes aren't as good as phones. Call boxes aren't everywhere, and they don't tell the fire department where exactly the emergency is, or the nature of the problem.
They used to publicize that you were required to stay at the box after pulling it, to tell the fire department where the fire was once they arrive. Does anyone even know that any more?
In some ways the fire alarm
In some ways the fire alarm boxes are better than a phone. A person does not have to know where they are to get fire trucks to the fire. A person does not have to speak English, or speak at all, to do this. Tourists, recent immigrants, mutes, people with laryngitis, people who are disoriented -- can all do it perfectly. Having once had a long and ultimately useless argument with a 911 operator who would not take a report of people trying to break into a side window of Hyde Park High School unless we told them the street address (!), I think there's value in that automatic feature.
And the master boxes -- the boxes in big buildings that link the building alarm directly to the Fire Alarm Office -- are a LOT faster than the private monitoring centers that then call 911 for you. Those can take five or ten minutes, or longer, depending on contracts and state laws. But pull a wall alarm at Boston Latin or the Hebrew Rehab and the alarm goes right in over the Gamewell wires. Using private monitoring services requires extra wires, too -- dedicated phone lines.
A good 911 system would tell
A good 911 system would tell emergency services where the caller is. If the caller doesn't say anything, don't they send someone out just in case?
So calling 911 while unable to speak is already slightly better than a call box, since it can be at the exact emergency location, while a call box can only pinpoint the location of the nearest call box. And 911 only gets better from there, if the caller can say anything at all.
A 911 operator refusing to send help to Hyde Park High School without an address shows that there are problems with our current 911 implementation. It does not mean that 911 is inherently flawed and inferior to call boxes.
Nobody is driving around winding springs
The person operating the call-box winds the spring when they open the door. There's a gear train inside, and pulling the door down winds up the mechanism. Very reliable old technology.
There is no way to make the 911 system as it exists more "resilient" than these call-boxes, since it depends on several vulnerable technologies. A start at making it less vulnerable would be having all of the components in Massachusetts, not in Louisiana, of all places.
About the fire boxes:
They are spring actuated, but that's it. The spring is re-wound by the person (who is BFD personnel) opening the box (with something called, oddly enough, a 'box key') by using the key to wind the spring. The door has nothing to do with it.
So, is anyone here really willing to destroy a system that works all the time (including a Carrington-level event) for the price of less than one Jaypee three decker?
In the nineties there was a fire on River St. in HP, I believe the address was 818. Three kids got killed in the fire from an illegal modification that blocked the rear stairway. They were 'receiving calls' (FA code for 'shit's probably real') but there was a language barrier, so Fire Alarm sent apparatus to 818 River and 318 River, on the other side of Mattapan Square.
Someone pulled the box near 818 (River and Wood?) and that cleared up that confusion, enabling the multiple alarm response to go to the correct location.
Funny thing was, Jorge Quiroga did a special a few days before the fire on how the money for the system was a big waste.
Can't have it both ways
You can't have 911 be resilient and entirely within MA.
There are foreseeable situations where all of MA could be affected that would take down the system without redundancy. Such as a massive power outage like the one in 2003. Or the ice storm in 2008. Or a massive hurricane or other power interruption.
Obviously 911 should work
Obviously 911 should work during a power outage. The call center should have a generator.
Land lines usually work during an outage. I don't know if cell towers have generators, but that would be a good idea as well.
Call boxes have their own DC power. Where does that come from? I suspect it's from a rectifier plugged into the power grid at the alarm center, with a generator backup.
I think the story points out exactly why this redundant system is worth the cost.
I say hats off to those with the forethought to maintain the legacy system.
The vulnerability of complex systems will always show us the benefit of simple systems.
A break down in a complex system leads to chaos.
A simple system has an easily predicable outcome and is easily understand.
If you can understand that a compass needle always points North.....you can navigate any where in the world.
Your resident Libertarian here
Redundancy is great, and the fire box system is great.
Taxation is theft, but the theft isn't a crime if there's no victim. I'm not victimized when my income is seized to pay for the fire box system. I'm happy that my fellow Bostonians don't require emergency alternate shelter tonight.
Will, time to stop the
Will, time to stop the silliness. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society." There has not been once society of any kind that did not have one form of taxation or another.
American's contribution to the taxation issue has been representative government, where you can vote (and try to influence other voters) to choose leaders who best match your taxation policies.
Yet don't be mistaken that low-tax states and countries are somehow run better. They are often the poorest and most authoritarian. It's no small wonder that many of the educated people from those areas move to more functional states like Massachusetts.
Public investments in people such as education, public health and public safety pay off in ways that we all have a stake in. To characterize one's contribution to the common weal is at best disingenuous and foolish.
Are the homeless and people
Are the homeless and people who can’t afford cellphones not allowed to report fires and other emoergencies?
Three Cheers for ...
That is awesome, only in Boston story
Although, my condolences to those affected by the fire.
Make it a POLICE and FIRE response
Instead of being strictly a fire department response, the street lights above the boxes should be blue and red and the wrapping around the telephone should say FIRE/POLICE or just EMERGENCY. Then, an educational campaign telling people what the boxes are for. In the cellphone age few people know what they are. Could be helpful in a robbery, rape, shooting, stalking situation where victim witness has no phone. I think I've seen EMERGENCY boxes on college campuses.
A cruiser dispatched with the fire trucks (usually just an engine and ladder) would add little or no strain to the police. False alarms from street boxes are way down, possibly because kids today have no idea what they are. When I was a kid it was a common prank that brought a full response, two engines, two ladders and rescue truck.
I have seen kids pull the one
I have seen kids pull the one in my area (bowdoin st Hamilton st and nobody came maybe the city should take the time to go out and check all of hem just in case we have a problem like this again
Can anyone point me to a map of fire boxes in Boston? I can find a list of street addresses, but it doesn't include neighborhoods. I know where the nearest fire hydrant is, but not the nearest call box!
I would be interested in any info for this as well.
Fire box locations
Here is a list of boxes and their locations from bostonfirebox.com, I don't know when it was last updated. Note that boxes with prefix numbers, like 12-1212 instead of just 1212, are connected to a buildings fire alarm system. These report building alarm activations automatically and directly to the fire department, they are paid for by the building.
9/11 New York
When the towers were attacked by radical muslim terrorists, the cellphones and telephone systems crashed. People reporting other emergencies during the event were able to report emergencies the fire alarm box system still worked. I say we stop paying for programs for junkies and giving free stuff to people and use that money to have a proven back up system to supplement our 911 system.
You say we should stop giving some free stuff to people, and give other free stuff to people. Unless your proven backup system is going to have coin slots or credit-card readers ...
NYC replaced their (street) pullboxes with intercom units (separate police & fire pushbuttons) somewhere around 40 years ago. They re-used existing housings and underground ducts - I don't know if that required pulling new cable for everything.