Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Fire alarm boxes once dotted the community

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Editor's note: This column is the first of two parts on Pittsfield's fire alarm system.

From the earliest days in school, baby boomers were given lessons on what to do to report a fire.

Of course getting out of a burning building was of utmost importance. But the thing that stuck most in my mind was the message that we had to run to the nearest fire alarm box, break the glass, pull a lever or do whatever the box was set to do.

Then, we were told, we were to wait until the firemen arrived to direct them to the fire. This was told to us over and over in school all through the 1950s.

For some reason the lessons focused more on the boxes back then than on using our multiparty line rotary telephones. We were educated again and again to know where the nearest alarm box was. For me it was at least a quarter of a mile away from my house.

It would take me 10 minutes to get there running at my top speed and that would be a record. Fortunately I never had to pull an alarm, but I always wondered how they worked.

The alarm box system was invented in 1852, and three years later, John Gamewell, of South Carolina, purchased the rights regionally for the system. By 1859 he owned all the rights and became the largest manufacturer of fire alarm boxes in the country. By 1890 his systems were in over 500 U.S. cities, including Pittsfield, where the system had been installed in 1883.

Prior to then fire alarms were rung on church bells, but the alarms were more or less haphazard, often supplemented by steam whistles from a local factory.

In January 1883, Pittsfield installed 22 street boxes. Over the years the system expanded and by 1915 there were 71 alarm boxes.

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In that year the Central Station installed an alarm that was a "hooter" operated by compressed air. Besides fire alarms this apparatus was used at special times and with set numbers of blasts for communicating with city residents.

For example if two blasts were given on a morning at 7:45 a.m., it meant that school was canceled for the day. Ten blasts was a signal to call out the militia. (It is unclear if this alarm for the militia was ever used.)

More typically one would hear a single, large blast that signaled a fire, and if repeated, it was for a second alarm. The "hooter" was retired in 1937, but remained in use at the General Electric Co. for years. Some may remember that it was blasted three times daily, for morning opening of the "shop," noon lunchtime, and closing.

The fire alarm system that existed in Pittsfield during the baby boom years was initiated in 1937. The city had contractor E. J. Cramer erect a small building beside the 1906 Morningside Fire Station on Tyler Street, which is still standing today. This building was specifically created to house the fire alarm system that had been previously located in a room at Central Station on Allen Street.

Back then the city had established a Fire and Police Signal Department with a superintendent, two linemen, three telephone operators and two trucks.

At the time, there were 143 fire alarm boxes and 22 phantom boxes throughout the community. A phantom fire alarm box was a location where there had been a box, but it was no longer there or it was a new area without an actual box.

With other means of communicating a fire alarm besides the fire alarm boxes, e.g., the increasing use of more convenient telephones, it was still important to have designated or numbered areas without boxes to dispatch certain trucks to fires.

Having five fire stations in Pittsfield as we grew up in the 1950s and '60s, the role of dispatchers was of utmost importance. Old or even newer locations without fire alarm boxes would be assigned an imaginary numbered box location. These would appear on maps and cards that showed which fire station was primarily responsible for responding to a fire and which locale was the backup station.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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