Preventing False Alarms

After street-alarm boxes became common on city streets, false alarms increased. Firefighters became unavailable for real fires and equipment dashing through crowded streets caused safety concerns.

Inventors donned their thinking caps to determine ways to reduce false alarms. Here are some of their creations.

John F. Kirby, in March of 1874, proposed attaching a closet to the alarm box. After opening the unlocked door, the user entered and shoved a bolt, activating the alarm. At the same time, the door locked. After a certain length of time passed the door would open. Along similar veins in December 1874, Henri Trudel patented the Fire Alarm Hut. This shed remained locked after the alarm sounded until a fireman used a key to open the door. Both of these required substantial space on the sidewalk.

In 1885, Edward Jungerman attempted to remedy this difficulty. His device attached a folded screen onto a building adjacent to the fire-alarm box. The key for the box was imbedded in the screen. In order to report the fire, the operator had to wrap the screen around himself and was then able to insert the key. If the building was ablaze this could put the person reporting the fire in grave danger as only the firemen could release him.

Handcuffs became another solution to preventing false alarms. Pulling the alarm on a Thomas Yale box fastened a handcuff to the person who set it off. The person could leave the area but the cuff remained on the wrist until a fireman unlocked it. The year was 1899. Three years later, John Hamer developed a call box that gripped the puller’s wrist and held them prisoner until the local fireman released him. The good citizen who tried to report the fire was unprotected from thieves, weather and ridicule from passersby.

In 1935 inventor Robert B. Long also used handcuffs with the fire-alarm box he developed.

Other inventors went in a different direction. Loudoun Campbell (1902) added a compressed-air whistle and a chemical charge to the call box. When triggered, noise and light surrounded the unit. In 1906, Campbell and his brother Frank placed a piece of glass on the fire-alarm box. Now the user had to break the glass to pull the handle. Once yanked, a bell sounded. Schools adopted this type of fire-alarm box.

In 1932, a call box took a photo of the person. The Morris and Estelle Rothman demonstrated this device in New York City. In 1970, New York City tried to use an improved photographic method. Thieves ripped off the cameras as soon as they were installed.

In 1980, New York City tried to fingerprint those who pulled call boxes. When someone reported a false alarm the fingerprints would be evaluated. The city abandoned this when people strongly objected to this device.

Call boxes slowly disappeared as more people used the telephone to report fires. Enhanced 911 systems gave the address of the user’s phone.

For the call boxes that still exist inventors continue to develop ways to deter those who wish to issue false alarms.

Singer, Edward Nathan. “False Alarms…and How Inventors Have Strived to Prevent Them.” Invention & Technology Winter 2001: 22-26.