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Telegraph fire alarm boxes still in action in parts of Long Island

The red boxes can serve as a vital backup when cellphone service isn't reliable or power is out, firefighters say. 

Fire alarm boxes operated by telegraph, first installed in the 1930s but slowly phased out over the decades, are in operation in a handful of districts on Long Island. (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz)

The intersection of Flower and Evergreen lanes in New Hyde Park is lit red every night by the soft glow of a disappearing technology.

It’s one of the last remaining fire alarm boxes operated by telegraph on Long Island, according to Michael Capoziello, a supervisor at Nassau County Fire Communications.

The boxes used to sit on hundreds of street corners across Long Island, but slowly have been phased out. In Nassau County, telegraph fire box systems operate in just three fire districts, Capoziello said. About 30 are spread throughout the Bellerose Village and Bellerose Terrace fire districts and a little more than 100 are in New Hyde Park. 

John Jordan, acting commissioner of Suffolk County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services, said he's not aware of any working telegraph pull boxes in Suffolk County. 

Some came down starting in the 1980s after the advent of 911 telephone emergency services, and almost all of the rest were removed in the 2000s as cellphones became more popular, said Capoziello, also a historian at the Nassau County Firefighters Museum and Education Center. Other fire boxes were updated to use radio or telephone to connect to a dispatcher, Capoziello said. 

But in New Hyde Park, telegraph boxes remain and are seen as a vital backup. When the power is out or cell service is spotty, the alarm boxes will still get the job done, said Vic Sowinski Jr., first deputy chief of the department.

The boxes were a valuable resource during superstorm Sandy, when many residents lost power and phone service, he said. The first notice the department received of a house fire during the storm came through a nearby alarm box, said Steven Kern, a New Hyde Park firefighter who helps maintain the system. 

“It never fails us,” Sowinski said. “It’s always worked, so it’s still here.”

The New Hyde Park alarm boxes work the same way they have since they were first installed in the 1930s, Sowinski said. Each box has a different number. When the alarm is pulled, a wheel inside turns, tapping out the number and transmitting it as an electrical signal to a receiver in the firehouse.

To demonstrate, Sowinski set off a box stationed at headquarters, No. 912. Instantly the horn blared, sounding nine times, resting a beat, blaring once and then two more times. Simultaneously, a telegraph in the radio room punched out the number on tape. 

“When you pull that box, the horn goes off,” Sowinski said. “It’s instant, as opposed to the 20 or 30 seconds it’d take to call it in.”

New York City has about 15,000 boxes, though not all of them still use the original telegraph technology, Capoziello said. The city has considered taking them down in the past because of the high volume of false alarms they generate.   

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to have them replaced with telephones but a 1996 court ruling said the plan violated the rights of deaf residents, according to The New York Times. The Bloomberg administration gave it another shot, arguing that about 85 percent of calls from the street boxes were false alarms, but a judge ruled in 2011 that a pay phone alternative would discriminate against the hearing-impaired. 

Sowinski said his department rarely receives a false alarm from a box. The department hasn’t considered getting rid of its system, though fewer than 10 percent of alerts currently come through the boxes. 

He said the cost to the department is a small fraction of its budget and improves the department’s public protection rating, which can lead to lower fire insurance premiums for home and business owners. 

“It works," Sowinski said. "If it saves one life, it’s worth it.”

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