No 911, no problem: Modern emergency systems replace fire call boxes

Published on Friday, 4 January 2019 21:10
Written by LISA BACKUS


Fire call boxes are a thing of the past in Central Connecticut but local authorities still have plenty of ways for the public to summon help if the state’s 911 system goes down, officials in several area towns said.

Last week, people in several states were instructed to use fire call boxes if they were available after a nationwide outage with CenturyLink, the internet provider that fuels many 911 systems throughout the country.

Connecticut was not impacted, but states from California to New York were. The outage prompted Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to call for an investigation, according to the Associated Press.

In most cases, fire call boxes in several towns in central Connecticut were shelved decades ago as landline and cell phone usage increased, officials said. Bristol discontinued use of the boxes in the early 1990s, said retired Bristol fire Lt. Mark Redman, who now acts as the curator for the Museum of Fire History.

“There were times when we got calls from the boxes,” Redman said. “In Bristol they were placed strategically. They weren’t on every street corner.”

The boxes were located on various streets within cities allowing residents to pull the alarm in the box which would notify the fire department that an emergency was located in that neighborhood. Each box had a number. By tripping the alarm, the code wheel within the box would send the box number to the fire department which would receive it on a paper stream. Firefighters would then take the number to a map and look up the location.

It was up to the person who pulled the alarm to stay at the location to let the fire department know where the fire was. Yet, Redman said firefighters could usually see the plume of smoke as they were rolling into the area. The devices eventually became cost prohibitive since they have to be maintained, he said.

“With the advent of cell phones they weren’t used as often,” Redman said. “In ways there was a value in keeping them,” he added. “But everything comes down to the dollar. For many reasons most towns went to different means.”

The only places in the immediate area that use any type of police or fire call box is at Central Connecticut State University and Tunxis Community College. Fire boxes were routinely used before the mass use of cell phones, particularly in large cities where summoning help to the right street was critical, said Gary Spohn, a Pennsylvania-based collector and historian who travels throughout the country to view fire call box systems still in use.

“New England was a hot bed for the use of fire call boxes, particularly Massachusetts,” said Spohn,who had done considerable research on the Gamewell Fire Alarm Company, which produced the boxes for decades. “There are some towns in Connecticut that still use them.”

Spohn maintains that the call box system is still faster than the use of fire alarms most businesses use that are connected to a third-party monitor, who then must determine the emergency and call for help.

“Even before the use of cell phones most towns and cities felt they were antiquated and that most emergencies were called in by telephone,” Spohn said.

The boxes were also subject to false alarms since anyone could pull the box but disappear before the fire department arrived, Redman said.

Every town in the state of Connecticut is connected to the 911 system which now allows people to use text messages to get help. Future enhancements will allow people to send videos of crimes and other incidents to 911, according to the state’s Division of Statewide Emergency Telecommunications. AT&T is the internet provider for the system.

The state’s 911 system rarely has widespread outages but when they do, police are ready.

In the event that Bristol’s 911 system goes down, 911 calls are automatically routed to Southington’s dispatch center, said Bristol Lt. Mark Morello who is with the department’s Communications Division. “If we have an outage, we’ll have a dispatcher go to Southington to help with the calls,” Morello said.

“Generally if we have a widespread 911 outage, the state would take the lead and put out the information.”

If 911 goes out in the Plainville, the calls will be automatically routed to New Britain’s dispatch center or another area center, said Plainville Lt. Nicholas Mullins.

“They will call us if they get one of our calls,” Mullins said. “If we think it’s going to be prolonged, we’ll send a dispatcher or an officer certified in dispatch to help with the calls.”

If New Britain goes down, the town would post instructions on social media and through the notification center, Mullins said.

“We contact the media and put out on social media that 911 is down and people should call the main number,” said New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell.

If the outages seems like it will be prolonged, the New Britain Police Department will also put more officers on the street, Wardwell said.

“Officers will be even more visible and stay visible until 911 comes back on.”

Berlin has no fire boxes, but firefighters can still get the location of a fire through their radios even if the town’s 911 system is down, said town Fire Administrator Jim Simons. Police suggest that residents make sure the routine number to the police department is programmed into their cell phone or placed in a prominent place at home. There are other measures that people can take to make sure they know they should be calling the routine number, Ciuci said.

“People can register with CT Alert, the state’s notification system,” Ciuci said. “They’ll receive an alert if 911 goes down statewide. They can also sign up for the town’s emergency alert system on the town’s website.”

Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.

Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol, General News, Plainville, Southington Herald on Friday, 4 January 2019 21:10. Updated: Friday, 4 January 2019 21:12.