Old Reliable

A fire alarm call box on every street corner.

Before cellphones, text messages and other instant forms of communication, these iconic red boxes were once considered the best means of contacting a fire department in the event of an emergency.

Running to a fire house was an option, too, albeit exhausting.

Sometimes propped up on telephone poles and continually charged with batteries, the call boxes – also known as pull stations and Gamewells after their manufacturer – transmitted signals through a wiring system directly to the fire department. When triggered, a series of dots were produced on ticker tape, notifying firefighters where to respond.

The system was known to be reliable, and relatively cheap. Businesses and schools began adopting similar models, many of which still exist today.

However, as technology expanded, the usefulness of the call box waned. Many municipalities have gone away with the system on their streets altogether.

The boxes now find themselves largely in museums and in fire stations as decoration.

“I think technology really has changed how things are done,” said Julius Leone, Chautauqua County fire coordinator. “There used to be an alarm pull box on every corner in some places. They would transmit directly to the fire department.

“It was a pretty darn good system when it was used. Now with cellphones people just call for help. Things are different than what they used to be.”

Fire departments in Dunkirk, Fredonia and Silver Creek, among others, once employed the fire alarm call box. All have since disappeared.

But not in Jamestown.

The red boxes are still a fixture on many street corners throughout the city. They also still play an important role for the city fire department to receive an alarm and respond quickly.

“They’re great for early detection, especially in the schools and businesses,” said Chester Harvey, Jamestown Fire Department deputy chief. “The signal immediately goes to the agency. There’s no call center that has to monitor everything and figure out who to dispatch.”

Harvey estimated the city has more than 200 fire alarm call boxes, both on the street and in buildings. Many companies utilize a form of the call box and a third-party system.

“Some have one, some have another. And some have a combination of both,” Harvey said. “I think they certainly serve a purpose.”

He added: “Street boxes used to be very important when people didn’t have a way to contact us. But the industry still relies on that early detection at an early stage.”

In Fredonia, the first call box was installed around 1910 and served its purpose for the next nine decades. Lt. Randy Butts of the Fredonia Fire Department said the village’s system was extremely efficient.

“At the time they were state of the art and very reliable,” said Butts, who noted he has a receipt for a call box part dated 1910. “They were really the only means of communication.”

Asked why the village decommissioned its boxes, Butts said, “Well, now everybody has cellphones. When these were first installed there were no phones at all.”

As for false alarms or pranksters? Those will always exist, Harvey said. He noted the city fire department responds to a few dozen erroneous calls a year as a result of an activated call box.

Police, however, don’t see the humor in reporting a false alarm. In fact, those caught in the act could face felony charges, according to New York state law.

“Absolutely we take it seriously,” said Capt. Robert Samuelson of the Jamestown Police Department of the false reporting. “The fire department will respond to those calls.”

Meanwhile, a century later, the call boxes are still being put to good use.

“It’s about having that early detection system,” Harvey said. “It’s very important to have.”