Box Alarms

Many people who lived in town over the years likely recall the sound of the Fire Alarm Whistle blasting out a box number. Sure, most usually knew that meant a fire, or at the very least, a fire call. But many probably never knew much about the system. 

The fire alarm telegraph system was developed in 1852. The Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company was later formed in 1879 and continues to support the system today. The fire alarm telegraph system is a series of fire alarm boxes located on street corners, telephone poles, and commercial buildings. These boxes are connected via low voltage wiring located either on telephone poles or underground and connected to decoding devices in the Fire Station. 

Each box is assigned a specific number and when a box is pulled or activated, a “code wheel” containing “teeth” will spin, causing the normally closed circuit to open for a momentary pulse. These pulses correspond to the box number, alerting the fire department of the activated box alarm. The box # is transmitted four times, known as rounds, to assure it is received properly at the fire station. These pulses are what would cause the blasting of the signal via the horn. Essentially, if Box # 122 was activated, one pulse followed by a short pause, followed by two pulses, another short pause, then two more pulses followed by a long pause would be transmitted four times. This would transmit four rounds of the box number to the fire station, audibly by the horn, and audibly inside the fire station on a gong type bell. 

Webster’s Fire Alarm system was first installed in 1893, initially utilizing a church bell and a mill whistle to alert firefighters of an alarm. At the height of its existence, the system contained multiple whistles and over 100 boxes, nearly 80 of which were street boxes located on telephone poles or ground pedestals. 

Back before radio alerting became the standard of alerting firefighters, when a call was received, dispatchers would transmit the box number of the nearest fire alarm box. This would pinpoint the neighborhood of the response. Although Webster removed the horn system about 5 years ago, Webster still operated a box alarm system that contains one “street box” located on a telephone pole and approximately forty “master boxes” which were tied to the fire alarm systems in commercial buildings until 2014. 

With the advent of 911, improved central station alarm monitoring, and especially cellular phones, the fire alarm telegraph system has become largely outdated and is slowly being removed from service. As of September 11, 2014, the Fire Alarm Telegraph System in the Town of Webster has been completed removed from service. Pictured are some of the components, both present and antique, that are utilized as part of the fire alarm system.

Below are listings of the Box Alarm system as they existed at various points of time in the past.