When Fire Boxes Dotted the Streets

Before telephones, fire alarm boxes were located at street corners. Each box was numbered and every home had lists posted in the kitchen, indicating where the boxes were located. When someone pulled the box alarm, the fire horn sounded with that box number. Most people memorized most of the list, and kids were in the habit of jumping on their bikes and heading out to wherever the fire department was going. When the box was activated by turning a knob or pulling a hook, a spring-loaded wheel turned, tapping out a pulsed electrical signal that corresponded to the box’s number. A receiver at fire headquarters would announce the alarm through flashing lights or tones. The first boxes were installed in Boston, Mass., in 1852. The simplicity of the alarm boxes meant they were able to operate under adverse conditions — like power outages or a natural disaster — that would disrupt or disable other communication systems, such as landlines and emergency services radio systems. Some fire boxes were designed with special devices and other functions in place in an attempt to curb the nuisance of false alarms and pranks. Some of these included an ear-shattering wail that would cause discomfort to anyone activating the box, while others would handcuff a detachable part of the device to the person triggering the alarm, so that responding police and fire officials — who were the only ones who possessed the key for release — could more easily identify and contact the individual responsible for the activated alarm. By the early ‘80s, most fire boxes had been discontinued and removed from cities across the country.