FIRE ALARM HARDWARE
This page contains information on the variety of Hardware used in the Boston Fire Alarm System.
FIRE ALARM BOXES
The picture above on the left is the ‘classic’ Boston Fire Alarm Box, complete with pedestal and antique red lens gas light. This is Box 1373, located on Beacon Hill at Walnut and Chestnut Streets, a short distance from the Massachusetts State House. The antique gas lights on the boxes are in service in the Charlestown, North End, Downtown, Beacon Hill and Back Bay sections of the city.
This type of box is in service throughout the city and is usually located at important street intersections so that it can be seen from many different directions. This box consists of two sections, the lower half which contains wiring and cables and is marked: FIRE DEPT. CABLES. The upper half contains the signaling equipment. This box is a ‘Gamewell 1951-style Three-Fold’. The signaling hook is located behind the white pull-down door. By depressing the hook and letting go, the signaling equipment will transmit the signal to the Fire Alarm Office (FAO).
The box is mounted on the black ‘Gamewell Type C’ pedestal, through which the alarm cables pass. This box is mounted on a angled brick sidewalk on the steep slope of Beacon Hill.
The picture above is Box 1231, located in the North End at Snow Hill & Hull Streets. This box is equipped with the more common red globe light at the top of the stanchion. A fire box has been in service at this location since 1913.
Fire boxes are painted red, although for a period of time in the 1970’s-1980’s, some boxes were painted lime-green as were many pieces of fire apparatus. Most boxes have been repainted over the years, as is evident with this box.
When a person activates (or “pulls”) a fire box, a telegraph signal is sent to the FAO. When the fire apparatus arrives at the box, a firefighter will gain access to the internal mechanism through the key hole to the upper left of the 1231 tag. The key used by firefighters is a large key shaped with notches at the end in the general shape of the letter J. It is through this fact that popular lore has ascribed the term “Jake” to describe a “Firefighter”, because all the firefighters had J-Keys.
The internal mechanisms of a fire alarm box are simple in concept, yet intricate in design and operation. The concept allows a single action to set in motion a series of actions in order to sent out a signal. The single action is the ‘pulling’ of the hook on the outside of the fire box. This downward action pushes a lever on the mechanism and this in turn activates the box.
Refer to the picture above, with the legends numbered 1 through 4, starting on the lower right. The mechanism is designed somewhat similar to a watch or clock, with internal springs, gears, contacts, and electrical components. Although the mechanism does transmit an electrical signal, similar to Morse Code, the mechanism itself does not require an electrical power source in order to operate.
The fire boxes are connected to the Fire Alarm Office (FAO), at 59 Fenway, Back Bay, by fire alarm cables running in conduits beneath streets and by overhead wiring on utility poles. The cables contain circuits to which fire alarm boxes are connected. This is accomplished by a spread-out pattern so that no two fire boxes in the same area are on the same circuit. This allows multiple fire boxes in the same area to send an uninterrupted signal to the FAO to report a fire. For example, Box 1373, in the above picture at Walnut and Chestnut Sts. on Beacon Hill, may be connected to Circuit #26. Box 1372, at Mt. Vernon and Hancock Sts., may be assigned to Circuit #32 and Box 1374, at Mt. Vernon St. and Louisburg Square, may be assigned to Circuit #38. Each circuit usually has between 15 and 20 boxes connected to it.
When activated, the fire box will transmit a signal four times. This signal will take the form of ‘beeps’ or ‘dashes’. Thus Box 537, in the picture to the left, will send – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – . The FAO, upon receipt of this alarm signal, will dispatch fire apparatus according to the ‘Running Card’ for that box(see Running Cards). Thus, an alarm of fire has been transmitted without finding a phone, calling 911 and getting transferred to the proper department, language barrier, or the inability of a caller to decribe the nature of the emergency due to its location or severity.
When a fire box has been activated, a fire department member responding to the scene will open the box and use the handle on the spring to rewind the spring. The spring can handle four separate activations without rewinding.
Fire boxes are mounted on other types of hardware. In the photo above, Box 1539, at Berkeley & Newbury Streets in the Back Bay, is mounted on a round green metal housing. This is usually the case when the fire box has been knocked down due to a motor vehicle collision.
The green housing is used as a temporary stanchion and connection point for fire alarm cables until permanent repairs can be completed.
All firehouses in the city have a fire box mounted on the outside of the building. This ensures citizens have the ability to send in an alarm, if the fire companies normally in the firehouse happen to be out on a call at the time.
In the photo above, Box 3352 is located between the apparatus doors of the firehouse of Engine 24/Ladder 23 at 36 Washington Street, Roxbury.
Some fire boxes do not have a red globe or antique colonial light atop the stancion above the firebox.
In the photo above, an example of this arrangement is Box 1895, at East & Winter Streets, Dorchester. A white ball is affixed to the top of the firebox, and has no stancion or light.
Many fireboxes installed over the years had a brass number plate attached to the front of the box. In recent years, plastic number plates have been used for new installations and as replacements for the brass plates.
In the photo above, an example of the brass number plate is on Box 1374, located at Mt. Vernon Street opposite Louisburg Square, Beacon Hill.
Some fire boxes are pole-mounted, usually wood utility poles located in residential areas of the city.
In the photo above, Box 2649, at Seymour & Rowe Streets, Roslindale, is attached to a special bracket which is screwed into the wood pole.
Above the fire box, a red and white ‘EMERGENCY’ sign increases the visibility of the fire box and its use as a public safety device.
Fire alarm boxes are standard in size and dimensions, although there are differences in some of the hardware.
In the photo above, Box 7161, at East First & ‘E’ Streets, South Boston, the Gamewell insignia at the top of the box is larger than other boxes. The horizontal bar above the white handle creates a square access door to the interior of the box, which differs from other examples on this page.
The Boston Fire Alarm Box Key, in the photo above, allows access by firefighters to the internal workings of the fire box. The key has the general shape of a ‘J’ and was thus called a ‘J-key’.
In the early days of the fire alarm system in the 1850’s – 1870’s, all the fire boxes were locked. Only trusted citizens in the area were give a key to the fire alarm boxes. In order to send in an alarm, a citizen would need to find a person with a key, have that person open the box and pull the alarm.
As the fire alarm system developed and increased in size, the need to allow ordinary citizens to send in an alarm became apparent. As a result, the boxes were unlocked and the design changed to have a hook accessible to the public.
The brass plate states ‘Pull The Hook Down Once Only’, in order to send an alarm. It also states, at the bottom, ‘Do Not Repeat The Alarm’. These instructions were stated because pulling the hook multiple times would interfere with the transmition of telegraphic signals.
The ‘J-key’, a copy of which is provided to all Boston firefighters, is thought to be source of the term ‘Jake’ as a reference to a Boston firefighter.
Earlier, fire boxes were constructed with types of hardware that are no longer in service.