Fire Alarm Box

San Francisco, California

Photo Credit: Maja Brugoš

Sprinkled throughout the city of San Francisco, California are 2,040 antique red iron fire alarm boxes. These boxes are still in use today with some dating all the way back to the 1860s. Throughout the entire city, these fire alarm boxes are spaced approximately two blocks apart from one another providing an important emergency service.

The fire box system was created in a time when there was no other way to alert firefighters. The boxes use telegraph technology. When someone pulls the alarm, a telegraph wheel taps out a message to the nearest fire station, announcing the box number directly through to the station without having to go through a dispatcher.

Although the system may seem antiquated, the technology in place remains active and reliable when other forms of communication may not. For instance, the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit in 1989, destroyed cell towers and cut power to many parts of the city.

A handful of boxes out in the field that still bear an 1899 date and almost all carry the name of the city’s defunct Department of Electricity. Despite the antique outer shell, the inner workings have been updated in recent years.

San Francisco’s first alarm system was installed in 1865 at a cost of $24,000 and the first call was from Box 47 at Powell and Market streets on April 26. It was a false alarm. Today the reliable fire boxes continue to protect the city, despite an occasional false alarm.

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