Recent Survey Among 80 New England Communities Attests to Creater Dependability of Municipal Fire Alarm Systems

Editor’s Note: Most readers of Fire Engineering are familiar with the controversy over the fire alarm box vs. telephone as a basic means of transmitting fire alarms.

One of the important factors frequently overlooked in weighing the merits of each facility is reliability of service under extreme disaster conditions. High standards of engineering, materials and service are fundamentals of efficient fire alarm communications and are stressed by the National Board of Fire Underwriters and N.F.P.A. in their published standards requirements.

It is doubtful if any recent disaster conditions demonstrated the mechanical and engineering superiority of our present-day fire alarm systems as did hurricanes Carol and Edna, late last year.

The following report is based upon a questionnaire sent to all fire alarm superintendents in the affected areas, soon after Hurricane Carol. Replies were received from over 80 communities telling how their fire alarm systems stood up during the emergency. Acknowledgement is gratefully made to these officials, their chiefs of departments and to the manufacturers for their cooperation in making this data available to readers of this Journal.

HURRICANES are the supreme test of the durability of all types of communcations systems, and the mettle of the organizations that service and maintain them. If fire service communications have any shortcomings, hurricanes such as that alphabetical trio, Carol, Hazel and Edna will disclose them.

The need of engineering, installing and maintaining critical fire alarm systems to withstand all possible handicaps, including inclement weather, has long been appreciated in the fire service and by organizations such as the National Board of Fire Underwriters which has, through its Committee on Signaling Systems and Thermostats, established the high standards under which such equipment is made and used in the fire departments of the nation.

The standards of product and service of the telephone companies also are established on a high level, and under normal conditions perform efficiently. Telephone emergency crews have won wide recognition for meeting emergencies that result in outages, or stoppages of service. The telephone companies have deservedly heaped praise on their emergency services following major sleet and wind storms, floods and holocausts such as the New England conflagration of several years ago. They accomplished the near-impossible in restoring service, with minimum delay.

Commercial telephone subscribers are familiar with these service interruptions, even if not always reconciled to the delays. But these subscribers, while accepting with some reservations the inconveniences imposed by the delays to their normal phone conversations, do not take kindly to them when a critical emergency such as fire arises. The fact that the telephone subscribers’ contract specifically absolves the company from such things as hurricanes and the like, does not compensate their fears and displeasures. Nor does it suffice to allay doubts and fears of the fire service which can tolerate no interruptions, even of its own facilities.

Wherever municipal fire alarm systems exist, they generally are accepted by public as well as fire service as dependable even under the most serious catastrophies, including cyclones, hurricanes and tornados. It is generally expected that they will continue to function, notwithstanding the onslaughts of weather, or at least to endure long after other wired communications have fallen by the wayside. Again, generally speaking, they do.

The record is replete with instances where the fire alarm telegraph was the last means of communication after all else had become disrupted. On that infamous day at Pearl Harbor, the telegraph system alone survived the clobbering and was the sole wired communication channel for several weeks.

There is no particular secret about it. Any municipal communications signal engineer can tell you why this is.

Considerable light was shed on this question following last Fall’s hurricanes Carol and Hazel (it isn’t necessary to include ‘Edna’), which, incidentally, did more property damage, measured by insurance statistics, than the San Francisco fire.

Comparison of Two Services Made During Fall Hurricanes

In an effort to determine comparatively just how susceptible systems were to interruption of outage, fire alarm superintendents throughout most of the affected areas of New England were questioned on the point. They were asked such questions as the size of their municipal fire alarm systems (by circuits and boxes); the number of both ‘knocked out,’ and the length of time service was out. They were also asked what percentage of telephones and the telephone systems in their district were put out of service, and how long it took to restore that service.

Shorn of technicalities, here are some of the comparative case history data concerning hurricane “Carol.”

Boston, Mass.—In the largest city in New England, the fire alarm system was restored within 12 hours by the communication’s bureau’s own employes but the telephone service was disrupted for days.

Walpole, Mass.—The fire alarm system was back in operation within 48 hours; phones were not completely restored until after ‘Edna.’

Quincy, Mass.—All 15 fire alarm circuits were restored by 11:30 p.m. the day of the hurricane; phone service was not restored until two weeks later.

Ware ham, Mass.—The fire alarm system was completely back in service within 24 hours, but the phone service was completely knocked out and not fully restored for two weeks.

Coventry, R. I.—Permanent repairs were made to the fire alarm service within two hours after “Carol” struck; threequarters of the phones in the area were out for four days.

Saco, Me.—The fire alarm was back in service within 24 hours; phones not completely restored for 15 days.

Portsmouth, N. H.—All fire alarm circuits were restored the day after the hurricane; telephones were out for several days.

Manchester, N. H.—Complete fire alarm service restored the night of “Carol”; phones not completely restored for a week.

Nashua, N. H.—Full fire alarm service restored within a few hours; over 6500 phones out, not completely restored for two weeks.

Phones “Jammed”

A point made by a number of respondents was the jamming of the PBX boards. A Massachusetts fire alarm office put it this way: “Public telephone service was available as far as fire alarm headquarters was concerned. For a period of one hour, trouble on the direct line to fire stations prevented those stations from hearing us. The PBX Board was jammed with incoming calls for several hours. . . .”

In places where the telephone was the sole means of the public communicating with the fire department, the interruptions of course were far more serious than where, even if phones went out, street municipal boxes were available, and operative.

It should be said with credit to the telephone companies they made every effort to restore the critical fire service communications and it is possible that in some reports which refer to restoring service in a certain period, some service —even if temporary—was established sooner than the over-all picture would indicate. Nevertheless, it is fortunate that no fires of very serious magnitude occurred while these services were interrupted. It is said that upon several occasions, fires were reported over corner fire alarm boxes after efforts to first use the telephone met with failure.

The evidence gathered following these hurricanes would appear to justify the statement that has been advanced by adherents of the municipally-owned and operated fire alarm system, that under such control the fire reporting system is more efficient and reliable under extretne emergencies than where wires are under control of a leasing company. Centralized ownership and control, whether the system employs the street corner box, or telephone, is more dependable as it permits round-the-clock effort on the part of fire alarm signalmen, resulting in faster restoration of service. This could not be assured if the fire reporting system wires were controlled by a leasing company. Although such company would do all it could to restore the fire alarm system, its own commercial phone system would demand some concentration of its resources (even if it were not necessary to draw upon out-of-district facilities).

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Alarm Box Systems

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This is further illustrated by the report of one municipality which stated: We are dependent on the local power company for maintaining our outside lines. Consequently we had to wait until they had completed major repairs on their own lines.

The contract stipulations of the leased service would apparently not permit the municipal signalmen to work on telephone cables even in an emergency.

Viewing some of the technical, or ‘mechanical’ aspects of the picture, it should be remembered that in assessing hurricane damage to both services, the telephone and telegraph were subject to the same onslaughts. Many of the fire alarm telegraph wires, due to their rugged design and construction, remained in service, even when mounted on the same poles as the utilities. Also, small gauge, paper-insulated wires are not as satisfactory for fire alarm service as standard gauge rubber insulated conductors. The Underwriters say so and signalmen are aware of it. “Carol” proved it.

On the subject of conductors, a recent editorial in the “Boston Herald” vividly points out the weakness in paper insulated telephone conductors (as contrasted the rubber covered conductors generally required for the fire communications): “In Providence, R. I., thousands of downtown phones were knocked out by hurricane ‘Carol’ and were still out when ‘Edna’ flooded manholes. burying telephone cables under tons of water. The regular system in that area of about 8000 telephones was actually destroyed—entire cables and switchboards had to be replaced. Service was out for two weeks. Contrast this with the report on the Providence fire alarm telegraph system. They were able to restore fire alarm protection to the city, with the exception of four circuits, by 9:00 p.m. the same day as the hurricane and complete service was restored the next day.”

550,000 Phones Silenced in N.E.

“Carol” and “Edna” silenced about $50,000 telephones in New England alone, or about 15 per cent of the total phones in service in that section of the country. Considering that large sections of New England were undamaged, it would seem a substantially higher percentage of phones in affected areas were put out of service. With large areas deprived of phone service for days, no fires could be reported by telephone.

Although hurricane “Hazel” missed New England, Washington. D. C. was hit hard by it. Power was out in many areas in excess of 72 hours street and traffic signals disabled—telephones out of service. The only completely func tioning wired communication systems in the Nation’s Capital during the emer gency was the police and fire alarm telegraph systems. At no time were they out of service.

The story is the same in other areas south of Washington where the several hurricanes struck. In nearly every case where sound comparisons could be made, the reliability and ruggedness of the municipal fire alarm system was demonstrated.

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