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Some fire departments in North Jersey still see fire boxes as a vital lifeline


JANUARY 1, 2016, 11:47 PM    LAST UPDATED: FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016, 11:58 PM

The red-and-white metal boxes, affixed to utility poles or the walls of large buildings, are relics of an earlier time — pieces of street furniture that are easily overlooked in North Jersey’s crowded suburban landscape.

Fire departments almost everywhere once relied on these call boxes as their primary means of learning about fires and other emergencies. The boxes have been slowly disappearing over the past three decades — many becoming collector’s items — as fewer departments see the value of maintaining a system that is prone to false alarms and, in the era of the cellphone, relies on century-old telegraph technology.

But some fire departments in New Jersey continue to use them. “We kept some of those basic systems because they still work,” said Chief Anthony Verley of the Teaneck Fire Department, which has paid firefighters. Little Falls, Hawthorne, Hackensack and Ridgewood also still use them.

For these departments and others, the appeal of the call box endures not despite its simple nature — the technology was developed in the late 1800s, and the boxes themselves and the wiring within can date to the 1930s or earlier — but rather because of it.

Call-box systems — firefighters often call them Gamewell systems, a shorthand derived from one of the better-known manufacturers — use very little electricity, making them reliable in the event of a natural disaster that knocks out the power grid. Ridgewood’s system, for example, runs on only 12 volts; six car batteries in the attic at fire headquarters can provide enough backup power to run the box network for days in the event of a widespread outage, fire Capt. Greg Hillerman said.

“We don’t need power, we don’t need anything. It’s self-sufficient,” Hillerman said, noting that during the Y2K scare, when blackouts were feared, and Superstorm Sandy, when much of the village lost power for more than a week, the call boxes were one of the few sure things around.

“It’s one of the rarest things you can think of when something 100 years [old] is more reliable than what they’ve come up with since,” Hillerman added.

Call-box systems are simple. The boxes — traditionally made of cast iron, though newer models tend to be cast aluminum — are attached to posts, poles or buildings. They’re numbered, and firefighters have records of where each box is located. When someone pulls a box’s lever — or if a smoke detector attached to a box triggers it — gears inside the box begin to turn and click, tripping a signal that’s transmitted to fire stations through a network of copper wires.

When the signal reaches a fire station, a bell chimes a number of times corresponding to the number of the box, telling firefighters where to go. A digital signal receiver also prints out the box location. Some departments, like Hackensack and Ridgewood, maintain manual receivers that predate the digital ones and punch triangular-shaped holes in long strips of paper, like Morse code, indicating where the emergency is.

In many cases, firefighters have memorized the numbers of certain boxes that are frequently pulled in their towns, as in hospitals or schools. Otherwise, the number must be looked up — on index cards in Teaneck, in large binders in Ridgewood, or on an oversized sign in Hackensack.

5 thoughts on “Some fire departments in North Jersey still see fire boxes as a vital lifeline

  1. And the last time an actual fire was first reported on one of these was when? Dump them now and divert the money to pay interest on the boondoggle parking garage.

  2. No we don’t need full time K we should direct that money to the “boondoggle parking garage.”

  3. is that was that is for, I use it to call dominos,

  4. Actually, a few weeks back a resident pulled a street box to report a gas leak. The master boxes used in the buildings are a faster method of alarm than any monitoring company. The signal is received instantly, where an alarm company has to call the dispatch center. The article was well written, although it contained some dim-witted commentary IMHO.

  5. RFD…..saved another basement.

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