Coded Boxes or Telephones?

Coded Boxes or Telephones?

Fire Engineering Survey:

Coded box or telephone—which fire alarm reporting system do chiefs prefer?

You may be surprised to learn that user satisfaction with each type of system is practically identical. This is one of the principal findings of a survey of fire chiefs conducted by FIRE ENGINEERING.

In response to our mailing of 1,439 fire alarm system questionnaires, 566 chiefs, or 39 percent, returned the forms by early March. Although results were still coming in, it was decided to cut off replies in order to tabulate the statistics. The gratifying response was, we believe, a good indication that FIRE ENGINEERING’S continuing interest in determining the effectiveness of fire reporting systems is widely shared.

Two major goals

The survey had two prime objectives: to obtain information that might contribute to the step-by-step improvement of emergency communications equipment and techniques, and to assemble data which would help to put the problem of false alarms in proper perspective. To insure that the survey would be broadly representative, questionnaires were mailed to chiefs in large and small cities and towns throughout the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii.

Some of facts developed

Among the findings:

  1. By coincidence, user satisfaction with respect to coded box and telephone systems is almost identical.
  2. There is a tendency to skimp in street box distribution for both types of systems.
  3. Building installations connected to municipal fire alarm circuits are popular, accounting for 15 percent of all coded boxes. For all the telephone systems reported on, an average of 9 percent of the boxes are on buildings, many of which operate only manually.
  4. Coded alarm boxes get more frequent use than phone boxes in larger cities, and the converse is true in cities of less than 50,000 population.
  5. Of all alarms from boxes and other sources, 5 percent were reported to be false telephone box calls as compared to 13 percent for coded boxes. Also, 28 percent of all box alarms were reported as false telephone box calls as compared to 38 percent for coded boxes. No attempt was made to equate
  6. the widely varying interpretations of a “false” alarm.
  7. User overwhelmingly favor the type of system they now have in service. This applies to both coded and telephone systems, although some chiefs expressed interest in the technological development of radio call boxes.

Considering the variety of file departments and operating conditions represented in this survey, it is unwise to push generalities too far. However, additional insights are afforded by a closer look at the statistics in relation to comments the chiefs made.

User satisfaction

A tabulation of the views of chiefs on existing systems is given in Table I. The large number reporting on coded systems as compared to telephone systems is attributed simply to the fact that there are many more coded systems in use. The telephone box and combination voice/code systems are, of course, more recent developments.

The comments of the chiefs suggest that those who are operating with long-established systems, probably installed by a predecessor, tend to discuss their objections more openly. It is only natural that any chief who may have had a key role in the selection of a more recent system, regardless of type, would be inclined to focus on the positive values of his system. However, the real significance of Table I, we believe, is that an overwhelming majority of users of both systems expressed complete satisfaction.

The fact that 85.1 percent of the chiefs were pleased with their coded systems is somewhat surprising since most of the coded systems are older. One might expect more users to prefer the newer telephone and combination code/voice systems.

Approval is general

Chiefs who indicated some degree of dissatisfaction totaled 10.8 percent for coded boxes and 10 percent for telephones. Both percentage figures are about the same. However, approximately 9 out of 10 chiefs approve of their systems, a good record of customer satisfaction for any product.

Street boxes in service

The distribution of street boxes is considerably higher for coded systems than for telephone systems in municipalities with over 25,000 population. Below this point, they are reported to about balance. However, the number of boxes relative to the size of community generally appears to be small for both systems.

The comments of the chiefs indicate several reasons for skimping on boxes, such as a desire to hold down annual rental or maintenance costs and reduced recognition of a need for boxes in certain residential areas.

The popularity of “master” boxes for direct connection to municipal fire alarm circuits is evidenced by the larger number of interior systems in buildings thus connected. (See Tables II and III.) On the average throughout all systems reported on, about 15 percent of all coded boxes are “master” boxes protecting schools, hospitals and other public and private properties. By comparison, in street telephone systems 9 percent of the boxes are installed in buildings. Most boxes are the manually operating type. In cities of over 100,000 population, comparison shows 13 percent of the coded boxes compared to 6 percent for telephone are used to protect buildings.

Cost influences choice

Apart from criteria for product performance such as reliability, freedom from tampering and reduced susceptibility to false alarms, the survey suggests that user cost is also a factor in system selection. Municipalities usually provide master box connections to coded systems at little or no cost to the user. For telephone service, the user customarily pays a regular charge to the telephone company, which, of course, mounts up in time.

The statistics show that coded alarm boxes get more frequent use than do phone boxes in larger cities. A reasonable explanation would be that recognition of the telephone box has not yet become widespread. For years, people have been told by fire chiefs: “If a coded street box is handy, use it.” The reliability of the conventional coded alarm box and preference for its use over commercial telephones have been firmly implanted in the public’s mind, and the survey suggests that the street phone is viewed similarly to the commercial phone. On the other hand, calls from telephone boxes are higher in cities of less than 50,000 population where, apparently, the problem of educating the public in their use is not so great.

False alarms

The statistics on false alarms favor telephone boxes slightly. Some question remains, however, concerning interpretation of the percentages reported, because of different definitions of what constitutes a false alarm. A number of municipalities, for instance, report they do not record voiceless telephone alarms. Others eliminate from the record alarms responded to only by a police patrol car or a deputy fire chief’s car while fire apparatus was withheld pending an investigation. Some chiefs may therefore accept the statistics as valid. Others may condemn not only the reporting practices, but the danger of withholding fire trucks from any alarm regardless of the chances that it may be false.

Several chiefs made a special point of the fact that the rate of false alarms rose sharply under certain circumstances. Cities torn by riots had an exceptionally high incidence of false alarms (Chicago with 92 percent). Juveniles also came in for a share of the blame. It was noted that false alarms increased when school let out and on certain holidays, such as Halloween.

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