How a vintage technology — fire boxes — still works in Boston

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A fire box at the corner of Endicott and Cooper streets in the North End (Quincy Walters/WBUR)
A fire box at the corner of Endicott and Cooper streets in the North End (Quincy Walters/WBUR)

When many 911 calls weren't going through in December 2018 due to an outage at Louisiana telecomm giant, vintage technology helped save the day in Boston.

After a fire broke out in a building in the North End, a resident who couldn't use a cellphone because of the outage pulled the fire box on the street outside. And soon, a fire crew was on the scene.

In Boston, there are over 1,000 fire boxes, a system invented in the mid 19th century, something that still works even when modern technology doesn't.

Tell anyone the vintage fire boxes all over Boston still work and they may not believe you.

"There's no way it works. I've been told for the past 20 years that they don't work," said Mark Contrado, who lived near the scene of the 2018 North End fire. "After you pull it, you talk to them or what?"

He's surprised this box at the corner of Cooper and Endicott streets functions. But it's one of about 1,200 fire boxes around Boston that still work.

At the Boston Fire Museum, Michael Gerry shows off a vintage fire box.

"Pull the handle down on the fire box," he instructs. "And there's a white button there .... and you push the white button down and you can hear what happens."

These fire boxes were invented in Boston and have been around since the 1850s. Back then, they'd set off a bell. Nowadays, it's a computer display.

Gerry says whether or not fire boxes are activated, they're used everyday by the Boston Fire Department.

"Each city address is cross referenced to a fire box like a zip code," he says. "And then that fire box number is then back transmitted out to the stations."

The fire boxes let the fire departments know which engine needs to respond. A computerized voice announces the call: "Engine 17. Ladder 7. A motor vehicle accident. 124 Pleasant Street. Dorchester. Nearest Box: 1864 Pleasant and Roche Street."

"They gave the nearest box location," Gerry says. "1864 Pleasant and Roche. So, the companies going to that incident will use a specific route to go from the fire house to go into that location."


Back at the fire box in the North End, Contrado, who was skeptical about them working, is impressed.

"You would expect them to not work, because of how old they are," he says. "But, I do think that they should work."

And for the foreseeable future, the fire boxes around Boston will remain in operation, should you ever need one.

This segment aired on December 31, 2018.


Headshot of Quincy Walters

Quincy Walters Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Quincy Walters was a producer for WBUR Podcasts.



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