Finding Fireboxes in Queens

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    One of my obsessions, practiced while wandering around Queens, centers around photographing Fireboxes. Rather than garnering suspicious glances from the local gendarmé, my intention is to record these ubiquitous pieces of street furniture before their inevitable removal.

    The one pictured above was on Crescent Street, where I believed myself to be standing on the Astoria side of the street.

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    Review Avenue, nearby Calvary Cemetery, is where the one pictured above can be found.

    This little project of mine got started a few years ago – when first Mayor Giuliani, and then Mayor Bloomberg – announced intentions to remove the alarm system from service, due to the high number of false alarms (one city lawyer claimed false alarms counted for as much as 85-95 percent of alarm box calls) reported through the street fixtures. The reasoning as stated was that since most people carried cell phones, with direct access to 911, the century old alarm box system was no longer needed and an unnecessary expense.

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    A newly painted alarm box found on Greenpoint Avenue on the border of Sunnyside and Blissville.

    Law suits filed on behalf of hearing impaired New Yorkers, on the grounds that removing the system would discriminate against them, were successful in blocking the removal of these iconic devices. Unfortunately, the system took quite a wallop from Hurricane Sandy, and many boxes in coastal areas are still non functional.

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    You’ll find the box above on Grand Avenue in Maspeth at the border of Brooklyn, if you’re curious.

    The vast majority of the Fireboxes of New York City were originally set up in the 1910s, although there are older specimens in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. Some of the really old ones will bear an imprint that reads “H.P. TEL.”

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    Queens Boulevard, in Sunnyside, is where you’ll find the box above.

    It seems that when the fire system, pipe and pump wise, was first laid down in the early 20th century, technological infancy limited the number of streets that could be served by high pressure water lines. Reserved for high rises, factories, and high density tenement blocks – the sort of water pressure that is common today was only available in certain areas and in limited supply.

    However, should the need to fight a fire on a high floor arise, fire chiefs carried a key that would access one of these “H.P. TEL” fireboxes which would send a command back to the firehouse to throw open the valves that would pressurize the lines flowing through its district. The TEL stands for telegraph, apparently, and the whole scheme ceased to be necessary sometime in the 1950s.

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    Tree lined, the street that the box above is found on runs through Jackson Heights.

    These are all pull boxes, by the way, meaning that you pull a handle which turns an internal mechanism that sends a signal to FDNY indicating which box has been triggered. There is a key hole on the face of the unit which allows FDNY personnel to reset the box to “ready” state after their alarm call has been accomplished.

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    Hunters Point, nearby Anable Basin, is where the alarm box pictured above may be found.

    From Wikipedia – a description of the various sorts of alarm boxes found in New York City:

    The second most common method is by means of FDNY fire alarm boxes located on the street and in certain public buildings such as schools and hospitals as well as along highways, on bridges, etc. These boxes primarily consist of two types. The first is the mechanical box (also commonly called a pull-box or a telegraph box) in which a spring-wound mechanism alternately opens and closes an electrical circuit, thereby rendering a coded number linked to the specific location of the box. Until the advent of the STARFIRE “Computer-Assisted Dispatch System” (CADS), dispatchers had to audibly count the taps from mechanical boxes when they were received in the central offices. Today, a “Box Alarm Readout System” (BARS) display handles that aspect of the job. The second type is the “Emergency Reporting System” (ERS) box that is equipped with buttons to notify either the FDNY or the NYPD, allowing either department’s dispatcher to have direct voice communication with a reporting party. Beginning in the 1970s, ERS boxes started to replace mechanical boxes in many areas of the City.

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    Queensbridge, in Long Island City, is where this zombie box stands.

    Unfortunately, these alarm boxes are quite vulnerable to a lot of things, not just Hurricane Sandy induced flooding. Many alarm boxes are plundered by metal thieves, who strip away their copper wire and other valuable materials, with the intentions of making a quick sale at scrap yards. This is quite a problem, actually, and it isn’t just limited to alarm boxes.

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    Northern Boulevard at 36th Avenue is where this oft abused specimen is found.

    More commonly, it is an automotive foeman that is to blame for one of our alarm boxes being damaged or destroyed. I say “our,” of course, as these devices are the commonly held property of the citizenry. FDNY maintains a crew whose responsibility it is to get our alarm units back up and running, but our city is enormous, and I’m told we collectively own around 15,000 Fire Boxes. Apparently, in Queens, there’s meant to be one found every two blocks.

    As I said in the beginning, they’re ubiquitous.

    Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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