Friday, January 27, 2017
The familiar red fire alarm box that has been a fixture on every other street corner in New York City is being phased out, with many of them being disconnected in many neighborhoods. The city has decided that calling 911 on a cellphone is the best response when a fire breaks out. The Fire Department of New York has complained that over 90% of the calls they receive from the fire boxes are false alarms. There were, in 1999, a total of approximately 4400 remaining pull boxes and 9060 Emergency Rescue Service boxes (the ones with the buttons to contact the FDNY or the NYPD). None of the older pull boxes remain in Manhattan or the Bronx.
It’s interesting to note, though, that many fire alarms, and the lights that mark their presence, are functional “living fossils” as far as ‘street furniture’ goes. Many of the fixtures were installed in the first few years of this century.
Over the years, the city has devised several methods to mark fire alarm boxes. In the early years, beginning in the 1910s, boxes were marked by large, orange globe-shaped diffusers, made of glass at the start and then plastic later on. They could be installed on the shafts of cast iron lampposts or on the arms of lights hung from utility poles. They could also be mounted directly on top of the main diffuser.
This became impractical, though, when mercury bulbs appeared and new diffusers started appearing in the early Sixties. The shape of the fire alarm diffuser changed from a globe to the tube-shaped object shown above. As a rule, the new fire alarm lamps were mounted on short, simple curved bars that were attached to the utility pole or lamppost shaft.
In certain sections of the city, however, the cast-iron arms shown above were retained to carry the fire alarm lights. These arms, with their distinctive ironwork, were originally used to carry street lighting on side streets in the days when a single incandescent bulb was needed to light the street, in the early part of this century. The one on top is the one most commonly seen, but the one below, which looks like its little brother, is much rarer.