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Mark Hayward's City Matters: City's last real call from a box alarm came 16 years ago

By MARK HAYWARD
December 02. 2016 10:22PM
A number of old fire boxes — including this one on the corner of Upland and Bremer streets — remain in Manchester despite not being used for actual emergencies. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)



THE YEAR 2000 seems so long ago.

The country elected its last Republican President.

Many people had cell phones, but iPhones and smart phones were off in the future.

In Manchester, Bob Baines was sworn in as the new mayor. And the fire department answered the last legitimate call to come from a street box alarm.

Street box alarms are those clunky looking, red metal Bible-sized boxes that you find on telephone poles beneath a banner that reads FIRE. About 80 of them are scattered around the city.

They drew my interest last week when the fire department complained about a rash of false alarms coming from box alarms. Someone with the maturity level of a preschooler (but a reach that exceeds that age level) had been yanking box alarms around the city.

On the night before Thanksgiving, a couple of the fire trucks dispatched to a downtown fire had to detour to answer a fire box alarm in the North End. False alarm again.

“This is LIFE THREATENING stupidity on someone’s part,” screams a post on one social media site about Manchester. Within a few days, Manchester police busted a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old and accused them of pulling 12 box alarms over a 10-hour period.

That’s more than Robert Levesque has pulled in the 50 years he’s lived on Adeline Street. His home is across the street from a graffiti-smeared box alarm.

Over the years, Levesque has had to call the fire department to his home twice.

He said he never thought about the fire box. Not for the chimney fire, not for the garage fire in the mid-1990s.

“I don’t think there were any cellphones then,” Levesque said. “I yelled to my daughter: call the Fire Department.”

About a half-mile away, Lori Borraz lives in a Laval Street apartment within eyesight of another box alarm.

Cheerfully, she answered my probing questions about what she’d do if her apartment were on fire.

Call 9-1-1.

From her landline? Doesn’t have one. From her cellphone.

What if it was out of power? Ask a neighbor.

What if no one was home? Go to Jackie’s Barber Shop next door.

What if it was closed? “There’s plenty of people around.”

I pointed to the alarm box. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know about that,” she said. She discovered it while walking her dog.

And while she never thought about it during my hypothetical emergency, she wasn’t keen about losing the box.

“I feel safer knowing it’s there,” she said.

Soon she may be living dangerously.

The city started removing boxes in 2004, and Fire Chief Dan Goonan said about 80 are left; half of the initial count. For most of the boxes, removal involves some rewiring, so it’s not as easy as just ripping the boxes off a telephone pole.

Goonan said all should be gone in two years.

Not all cities are keen on removing them. A news website covering San Francisco said no part of the city is more than two blocks from some 2,000 fire box alarms. During a 1989 earthquake, the boxes came in handy when cell towers were destroyed and power was cut.

And they proved useful in New York City in 2001, when mobile phone networks were overloaded during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, SFGate.com reported.

“The system works when others don’t,” Jack Donohoe, San Francisco’s public safety wire manager, told the website.

Nashua has 237 street box alarms and no notion of getting rid of them, said Assistant Chief Brian Rhodes. “It still gives people another way to notify us if there’s a problem,” he said.

But in Manchester, Goonan said they’ve served their purpose.

Yet until they’re gone, the fire department will continue to answer fire box calls. A box alarm gets response from a fire engine, fire truck and a district chief, about half the response to a normal fire call.

Last year, 44 false alarms came from the boxes.

“Often, we’ll have the same box pulled every day,” Goonan said. “99.99 percent are false alarms.” And Goonan said firefighters generally know a false alarm; most fires generate more than a single call to 9-1-1.

“The biggest danger is the people pulling alarms and someone getting hurt en route,” Goonan said.

So to recapitulate the absurdity:

• Young adults old enough to fight and die for their country engage in pranks that middle schoolers would find juvenile.

• Firefighters chase ghosts that haven’t appeared for at least 16 years. (It could actually be more. Communications Director Christopher Blue said “we haven’t had a legitimate call from street boxes since before 2000,” and I can’t get an elaboration on the word ‘before.’)

• Everyone nowadays has a better way of calling the fire department. (Even the poor and homeless have mobile phones nowadays, so-called ObamaPhones, thanks to the FCC’s Lifeline Assistance program.)

So here’s my suggestion to make a turn toward sanity.

Have district fire chiefs get in their SUVs and answer the street box calls solo. After all, they have all the experience and get paid more than the regular firefighter.

I forswear any article castigating the dire department if a momma cat and her kittens perish in a street box alarm fire that wasn’t answered. Scout’s honor.

As for Justin Nagy and Stavros Doukeris, the two alleged false alarmists?

They make a public guilty plea to their misdemeanor charges this morning. For their penance, they attend this afternoon’s Christmas Parade in downtown Manchester. They can be right up front, carrying firefighter boots, collecting donations for the Union Leader Santa Fund for The Salvation Army.

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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