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Calling the Fire Department 100 years ag

There is an arsonist in Woman of Ruinous Face, who has recently sent me down another rabbit hole of reasearch, this time into the Denver First Department. I spoke with a very helpful man at the Denver Firefighter Museum, who told me that until the invention of 911 Denver fire response times were only 3-4 minutes anywhere in the city. One man would take the call from the Fire Alarm Telegraph box, conviently located throughout the city. Another man would find the coordinates and press a button to notify the closest crew. The crew could get out of the station in 30 seconds or so and to the fire in another 1-2 minutes. The invetion of the 911 minddlemand and larger trucks have slowed responce times, though the Denver Fire Department still does an excelent job. Here is what the Denver Fire Journal has to say about calling the fire department 100 years ago.


In 1876, the City of Denver installed a Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph system. It consisted of eight miles of wire, two circuits and 18 alarm boxes. Initially, the boxes were connected to a huge bell mounted atop a 150-foot tower. By counting the strokes of the box number, firefighters were able to locate the alarm. By 1890, the Gamewell system had been expanded to 55 miles of wire and 95 boxes. Signals were transmitted by wire to firehouses. The telegraph system was expanded in the 20th Century and remained in service until 1971.


Opening the door of an alarm box and pulling the hook would trip a clockwork motor. The motor turned a notched wheel unique to each box. The wheel broke an electrical circuit. The notches on the wheel were arranged to send a signal identifying the alarm station to fire headquarters, which manually relayed the signal to firehouse receivers via a repeater. The repeater tapped out the box number over a system of station bells several times. For example, the wheel for Box 27 would have been two notches, a space, and seven notches. Firehouse bells would tap out the signal 2-7 for Box 27 in repetition, typically four times. A paper tape would also record the signal to verify the box number. Firefighters would refer to a "running card" to determine in what order they were "due at the box," i.e. first, second, third, etc.


Inner workings of fire alarm box, including clockwork motor, notched wheel, telegraph key (bottom, center) used by firefighters to summon additional equipment, i.e. second alarm, third alarm, etc.


In the 20th Century, the City of Denver was divided into five alarm zones:1 - Central2 - Southern3 - Capital Hill4 - Eastern5 - NorthernEach fire alarm telegraph zone was divided into five sectors.Each alarm box was assigned a four-digit identification number.For example:The fire alarm box at the corner of Colfax and Pennsylvania was assigned No. 1374."1" - The first digit identified the zone (Central)."3" - The second digit identified the sector within the zone (Sector 3)."7" and "4" - The third and four digits were unique to the transmitter of each box (Box 74).In the 19th Century, when the city was less populated, each fire alarm box was assigned a two-digit identification number.For example:The box at 17th and Lawrence under the earlier system was numbered Box 27 and under the later system Box 1221.SOURCE: Denver Firefighters Museum

Official List of Colorado Cities with Gamewell Systems in 1940s

Aspen Boulder Canon City Colorado Springs Cripple Creek Denver Durango Fort Collins Golden Greely Idaho Springs Leadville Manitou Ouray Pueblo Salida Sterling Trinidad Victor

Source: Youngstown Fire


Source: Denver City Directory

Box # and Location

4 - 15th, corner Wazee. 5 - 15th, cor. Lawrence. 6 - 15th, cor. Curtis. 7 - 15th, cor. California. 12- 15th, cor. Tremont. 13- S. 15th, cor. 12th av. 14 - S. 14th, cor. 14th av. 15 - 13th, cor. Tremont. 16 - 13th, cor. California. 17 - 13th, cor. Champa. 18 - 16th, cor. Blake. 21 - 16th, cor. Larimer. 23 - 16th, cor. Arapahoe. 24 - 16th, cor. Champa. 25 - 17th, cor. Wazee. 26 - 17th, cor. Holladay. 27 - 17th, cor. Lawrence. 28 - 17th, cor. Welton. 31 - 18th, cor. Blake. 32 - 18th, co r. Larimer.

34 - 18th, cor. Champa 35 - 23d, cor. Glenarm. 36 - 20th av., cor. Glenarm. 37 - 17th, cor. Broadway. 38 - 18th av., cor. Grant av. 41 - 19th, cor. Wynkoop. 42 - 19th, cor. Holladay. 43 - 19th, cor. Arapahoe. 45 - 19th, cor. California.

46 - 21st, cor. Larimer. 47 - 21st, cor. Champa.

51 - 22d, cor. Arapahoe. 52 - 22d, cor. California. 53 - 24th, cor. Larimer. 54 - 24th, cor. Champa. 56 - 25th, cor. Arapahoe 57 - 25th, cor. California. 61 - 7th, cor. 8th av. 62 - 11th, cor. 15th. 63 - Santa Fe av., cor. 8th av. 64 - 5th av., cor. Clark.

71 - 11th, cor. Larimer. 72 - 13th, cor. Holladay. 73 - 10th, cor. Curtis. 74 - 7th, cor. Larimer. 75 - 9th, cor. Holladay. 81 - 27th, cor. Larimer. 82 - 27th, cor. Champa. 83 - 27th, cor. Welton. 91 - 28th, cor. Arapahoe. 92 - 30th, cor. Larimer. 124 - 7th. cor. Water. 125 - 15th, cor. Platte. 126 - Fairview av., cor. Witter. 132 - Stanton, cor. McNasser ave. 135 - 35th, cor. Holladay. 136 - Downing av., cor. Champa. 142 - 23d, cor. Emerson. 145 - Broadway, cor. 9th av.



Feb. 7, 2012

Every year, San Francisco firefighters respond to emergency calls from a street alarm box system that was in use when horses still pulled the engines.

There's almost no part of the city that's more than two blocks away from one of the 2,040 antique red iron boxes that use telegraph technology, and almost all carrying the name of the city's defunct Department of Electricity. And in an age when cell phones and instant communications have spelled doom for the boxes in other major cities, San Francisco is happy with its link to the past.

"The perception is that the system is old and antiquated, but it's proven itself to be an important part of the redundancy that's built into our system," said Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White.

New York, which still has about 15,000 active call boxes, found out the need during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when cell phone lines were instantly overloaded, crashing the network along much of the East Coast.

San Francisco had its own communications disaster when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, destroying cell towers and cutting power to parts of the city.

"The system works when others don't," said Jack Donohoe, public safety wire manager for the city's Department of Technology, which keeps both the fire boxes and the smaller police box system running. "When the earthquake hit, some of the boxes in the Marina were tilted like modern art, but the system worked perfectly."

The system cost about $3 million a year to maintain a few years ago, Donohoe said, but the costs have likely fallen since the same crews now also work on the city's fiber-optic network.

It's that simple

One advantage is the system's simplicity, Donohoe said.

When someone pulls the alarm, a telegraph wheel taps out a message to the nearest fire station, announcing the box number.

"The call comes straight to us, without having to go through the dispatcher, like a 911 call does," said fire Lt. Karen Kerr.

While the boxes don't provide an exact address, they avoid the communication problems that language difficulties and the chaos surrounding an emergency can bring.

"It's a universal tool that everyone recognizes and anyone can use - young, old, English-speaking or not," said Hayes-White.

That doesn't mean there aren't problems.

First, the public safety system is old and designed for another time. The 460 blue police telephone call boxes, which date back to at least 1916, are from the days before radio and allowed cops walking a beat to check in with their station houses.

That doesn't happen much any more, but each rookie cop still gets a key for the call boxes upon graduation from the police academy, said Officer Albie Esparza, a department spokesman.

Roots in antiquity

The fire box system is decades older than that, coming from when there was no other way to alert firefighters. There are a handful of boxes out in the field that still bear an 1899 date, although what's inside has been updated over the years.

The city's first alarm system was installed in 1865 at a cost of $24,000 and, according to the San Francisco Fire Department Museum, the first call was from Box 47, Powell and Market streets, on April 26. It was a false alarm, which was a harbinger of things to come.

In 2010, there were 6,067 calls from alarm boxes, but only 1,123 were considered legitimate emergency calls, said Kerr. In 2011, the number of box calls jumped to 6,881, with 1,470 found to be legitimate.

Of those two years of emergency calls, only 16 were reports of fires, she added.

"Usually it's some kids just fooling around," said one firefighter who asked not to be named. "But every once in a while, you respond to a box call and it's 'Holy cow!' "

That's what happened early July 4, when an engine company responded to a street box call at Alemany Boulevard and Mission Street that turned out to be a three-alarm blaze.

"When firefighters arrived there was already heavy smoke coming out of the house and reports that an elderly woman was trapped on the second floor," Kerr said. "Firefighters went in, found her and pulled her out."

Saving a life

The woman had critical injuries, but survived, which might not have been the case if help had been delayed by even a minute or two, Kerr added.

San Francisco, along with Boston and New York, are among the last major U.S. cities to use the street alarm boxes, and even New York has talked about dumping them to save money.

But Hayes-White believes the boxes continue to contribute to the city's safety.

"There are a lot of false alarms, but still 20 percent of the calls we get are legitimate emergencies, where we provide help to residents," she said.

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