Fire Alarm Boxes
If a fire breaks out today, most people pick up a cell phone, dial 911, and quickly let the dispatcher know exactly where the fire is. In the early years of fire fighting, before telephones were widely used, Kalamazoo, like many other cities in the United States, used an alarm box system.
In September 2014, Donald Biscomb donated many of the components of the old fire alarm system that was used by the Kalamazoo Fire Department. The collection included two fire alarm boxes. Fire alarm boxes were mounted on posts in different areas and neighborhoods throughout the city. Each box had a number painted on the front. If someone witnessed a fire, they could go to the nearest fire alarm box and pull down the handle. This would transmit an alarm that would register at the fire department’s headquarters and indicate which box number had been activated.
Fire fighting has come a long way since 1843, when Kalamazoo first became a village. An early village ordinance required all storekeepers and occupants of buildings to have two ladders and two buckets that were only to be used in case of a fire. Although Kalamazoo’s first organized fire company, the Kalamazoo Hook and Ladder Company, was established just three years later, in 1846, it would be many years before Kalamazoo had a structured fire alarm system to alert the department of a fire.
The first fire alarm system was installed in 1873 and was originally a telegraph line from Corporation Hall, where the fire department was located, to the water works, Kalamazoo’s water supply. The cost of the system was $684.00. As Kalamazoo grew, more boxes and lines were added, and by 1900, there were 32 alarm boxes and over 18 miles of wire line. The more boxes and lines that were installed, the more quickly and accurately information was able to be transmitted. The boxes were used through the late 1950s.
According to a 1916 report of the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, the alarm boxes were more accurate than most people who used a telephone to report a fire. Many times, the caller would be so excited that they would give the wrong location, relay incorrect directions, or forgot to give any location at all.
Even as technology changes, these fire alarm boxes serve as a great reminder of technology of years past. They are a welcome treasure to the Museum’s permanent collection.