Back in the 1950s and ’60s, you could find fire alarm boxes in Pittsfield on telephone poles or on walls of buildings. The alarm box, looking like a little house, required pulling down a handle to open a door to get to an inner box.
Once open, you would pull down the lever on the inner box that would initiate a spring-loaded wheel. The wheel had bumps on it that corresponded to the number given to the box.
For example, the wheel in Box No. 54 had five bumps and then four bumps. When the handle on the box was pulled, it released this spring-loaded wheel to begin turning. The bumps sent an electrical signal by telegraph line to the fire station and a bell would ring out the number of the box.
Lights would also go on where firemen slept, if at night. The box number would be repeated four times. The same alarm would go to all five of the city’s fire stations. All firemen were on ready alert for a fire, no matter where it might be.
The alarm boxes would be reset by an assigned employee winding with a key if the box had been used for a fire or false alarm.
At the same time the bells and lights went off, a ticker tape apparatus at each station would be initiated and holes would be punched on a paper tape, also four times. This would give a permanent record of the fire alarm. As the city added fire stations, the system was designed to transmit info to each fire station and the station assigned to that box would respond directly if the equipment were available.
The Fire Department had a card system at each station with cards for every numbered alarm box, and each card indicated what station and firetrucks would be assigned to the area near the specific alarm box. The cards indicated an order for the next stations and/or trucks if the first ones were on another call.
If the secondary trucks were needed, the assignment was done by a dispatcher who was on duty 24 hours at the Fire Alarm and Signal System building at 239 Tyler St. If the dispatcher sent someone to a fire, he/she would let all stations know by radio communication.
For example, if the trucks from the Morningside Station were out on a call and there was another alarm in their area, the Central Station would have to know this and be ready to respond to that alarm.
In the early days before telephones were so prevalent, such alarms and radios were the way to rapidly communicate a fire, especially in factories and largely populated urban areas. The system was efficient for the times before computers and cellphones had been invented.
Back in the 1950s, the mechanics of the system, equipment and the relays were housed in a cabinet that was 8 to 10 feet high and 10 feet long, covering an entire wall. The dispatchers also had a big manually operated status board in front of them with green and red lights to indicate where each fire vehicle in the city was at any given time. When a fire was a double-alarm fire, the chief or deputy fire chief on the scene would be the only ones who could initiate a call for the backup trucks. For three-, four- and five-alarm fires, the chief had to be the one to call for the additional assistance.
In 1960, Pittsfield had over 200 fire alarm boxes throughout the city, yet by 1952, more alarms came by phone than by the boxes. It was only a matter of time that alarm boxes would become history.
In 1968, Pittsfield’s entire alarm system was updated with a new Gamewell system, which used transistors and smaller, more efficient backup batteries. The entire system fit in two 19-inch cabinets.
By 1983, most of the alarm boxes were discontinued, except in hospitals, schools and other buildings. The monitoring was done by private security systems connected to the new alarms. When an alarm would be set off, a staff member monitoring at the company would have to call the Fire Department.
Many cities still use alarm boxes and updated systems. The Gamewell system merged with another company and was acquired by Honeywell, which still uses the Gamewell name and is the leading manufacturer of more advanced fire systems in place today.
As I have chronologically matured, I am glad I didn’t have to worry about running — a quarter of a mile — to the nearest alarm box any more, as I was taught in grade school.