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Razing the alarms: Wolfeboro retires its old fire call box system

Sunday News Correspondent

August 11. 2017 6:58PM
A total of 82 pull stations are in the process of being removed as the Town of Wolfeboro has decided to decommission the system, deciding nostalgia isn't worth the cost of maintaining and repairing technology that has outlived its usefulness. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

WOLFEBORO -- In an era of enhanced 911, two-way radios, smartphones and GPS devices, the town has decided to retire its telegraph fire alarm system.

"It's with a sense of sadness; there is a lot of nostalgia," said Deputy Fire Chief Tom Zotti. "But as much as we'd like to be sentimental, we are guardians of the taxpayers' money, and it is technology that has outlived its usefulness."

In service since the late 19th century, the old alarms use a hard-wired telegraph system that transmits a numerical code to the dispatch center after someone pulls the handle of a street box.

"They are beautiful in their simplicity," says Zotti as he uses a key to unlock an alarm box and swings the door open, showcasing the now primitive technology that lives on in these red relics.

Inside is a clock-like mechanism. When the outside lever is pulled, that exerted force winds a main spring causing a gear inside the box to spin. Each box is identified by a specific number, and Zotti explains the spinning gear has a series of notches on its outer edge that correlates with that number.

For example, the outer edge of the gear inside box 231 has two notches, then a space, then three notches, then a space, then one notch.

The spinning gears complete an electrical circuit that carries the message along overhead wires to the fire station. The incoming message sounds on bells throughout the fire station and is recorded as holes punched in a revolving spool of paper - 2-3-1.

In late 2016, the fire department presented a formal proposal to selectmen, who decided the time had come to decommission the system, which has 82 boxes - the bulk of them the so-called street boxes that were mounted on utility poles around town. Others are master boxes, that were actually attached to buildings and wired into the properties' own internal fire alarm systems.

Wolfeboro Fire Department Deputy Chief Tom Zotti holds one of the fire boxes that are being removed from local street corners after selectmen agreed with the department's recommendation that the system that is more than 120 years old be decommissioned. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

Maintenance and repair costs, coupled with the scarcity of parts, were factors in the decision. The department has typically budgeted $5,000 to $6,000 annually to keep the system running, but has sometimes exceeded that amount.

A growing number of municipalities have abandoned their systems, deeming them obsolete and too expensive to maintain.

"In the 27 years I've been with the fire department I can count on one hand the fires that have (been reported by) this system."

Pointing to the fire alarm sensor on the ceiling of his office, Zotti explains the modern, addressable unit will not only provide a physical address but an exact location within the building.

Newer technology gives firefighters much more information, allowing decisions about tactics and equipment to be made quickly.

"You've got a much better sense of what you're faced with before you even go out the door," Zotti said.

But he concedes that fire boxes remain popular with the public, and especially firefighters.

"I think they harken back to a simpler, less complicated time."

After posting photos of some of the retired boxes on its Facebook page, the department was flooded with phone calls, messages and emails from collectors and others expressing an interest in acquiring them. The post drew more than 50,000 hits.

"It was a bit of a social experience. As the original post said, the boxes belong to the Town of Wolfeboro and no decision had been made as to their final disposition," Zotti said.

19th-century roots

The world's first municipal fire-alarm system was developed by Moses Farmer, an engineer, and William Channing, a Harvard-educated physician who never practiced medicine. Their first system was installed in Boston in 1852.

The inventors obtained a patent two years later. John Gamewell obtained the rights for the "Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities" in 1859, but with the outbreak of the Civil War the government seized the patents from Gamewell, a Southerner, and put them up for auction.

John Kennard, who worked for Gamewell, was sent to Washington and was prepared to bid up to $20,000 to recover the patents. He paid just $80, returned them to Gamewell, and formed a partnership, Kennard and Co., in 1867 to manufacture the alarm systems.

The Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co. was formed in 1879. Gamewell systems were installed in 250 cities by 1886, and 500 cities in 1890. 

By 1910, Gamewell commanded 95 percent of the market.

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