FAULTY FIRE ALARM OF NEW YORK
Old Boxes and Obsolete Methods Imperil the Safety of the City.
HOW ALL ATTEMPTS AT IMPROVEMENT WERE DISREGARDED.
So far back as 1896, when, through the action of Fire Commissioners Sheffield and Sturgis, as opposed to the better sense of Fire Commissioner La Grange, Superintendent Smith, of the telegraph and electrical appliances of the fire department of New York city before consolidation, was reinstated in his position, this journal not only protested vehemently against such a step being taken, but, also, showed that the whole evidence taken during the inquiry into the mismanagement of Superintendent Smith’s bureau proved incontestably that the whole fire alarm system in the city was obsolete and unreliable, owing to the failure of some box to act at the critical moment. It was strongly urged then, and has been as strongly urged ever since in these columns that the existing fire alarm system should be replaced by one that is up-to-date in every respect. The need for that was shown from the fact that, while in Brooklyn, where the Gamewel! system is installed, there were only five out of 378 public boxes which got out of order in 1895, there were 377 failures in New York. So far as New York was concerned, Superintendent Smith seemed to have depended altogether upon Frederick Pearce for the supply of fire alarm boxes and appliances and on George L. Wiley, the manager of the Standard company, for the installation of an underground cable system. Things have not improved since then. In fact, the opposition offered by Fire Commissioners Sheffield and Sturgis, of the Strong administration, towards making any changes for the better was kept up by Fire Commissioner Sturgis, of the Low administration, who set his face like a flint against equipping the old city with a fire alarm system such as its importance demands. The old Chester fire alarm box is still in use—one altogether obsolete. There are 1,000 boxes in Manhattan connected with fire headquarters by different circuits, all overloaded with wires. Nine hundred of the boxes date back to the pattern in vogue in 1869— only very slight improvements having been made in them. Owing to their not being non-interfering, when, as not infrequently happens, two or more boxes on the one circuit are pulled simultaneously for the same or different fires, confusion arises. There is no record at fire headquarters, the result being that the operators there must wait till one or other of the boxes is pulled again before the signal can be transmitted to the fire stations. With non-interference boxes, and nearly every city in the United States, except New York, is now supplied with these, such an accident could not occur. Nor elsewhere than in New York city is the same antiquated system in vogue of sending in an alarm without any signal being received at headquarters till the hook inside the box has first been pulled down and then allowed to spring back into place. Often an ignorant or a nervous person will hold on to the hook, will even pull it two or three or more times, and thus delay occurs. The hook of today in an alarm box has but to be pulled down and headquarters is immediately notified of the fact. It is true there are a few non-interference boxes installed in some parts of the old city, but, as Captain William Brophy. electrician and former wire inspector of the city of Boston, has pointed out, “they are being operated side by side and on the same circuit with boxes that are not similarly constructed.” It may also be added that three-fourths of the boxes in Manhattan and the Bronx are of the old village style—key-boxes. In fact (as an expert electrician writes to FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING), it would be very difficult to find in use anywhere outside of New York fire alarm signal boxes so antiquated, inefficient and unreliable to meet the present requirements of the service. During Mayor Strong’s administration (he continues) the fire alarm system and its management were very thoroughly investigated by the board of fire commissioners, and quite a number of the best known electrical and mechanical experts in the country after careful examination testified unanimously in condemnation, not only of the street signal boxes in use, but of the system generally, including the line and cable construction. Nothing of importance was done to secure any improvement until under the Van Wyck administration, when Fire Commissioner J. J. Scanned decided in favor of purchasing about 100 of the latest up-to-date type of boxes, which he installed in the most important thoroughfares and districts in the city. Under the Low administration nothing in the way of improvement of devices or methods was done. Quite an amount of money, however, was expended for fire telegraphs in the boroughs of Richmond and Queens, in the newly added territory; but, excepting some slight changes in form and construction (not, however, involving any one of the important improvements made during the last twenty years) nothing was done to secure increased reliability in this important feature of protection against destructive fires. The system installed in the borough of Richmond, Staten Island, is extremely antiquated, both in apparatus and method of operation. At an additional cost of about twenty per cent., a modern up-to-date system might have been secured, and the additional cost, to say nothing of the additional value of the protection afforded, would have been offset by the difference in the cost of its maintenance. Just before leaving office Commissioner Sturgis called for $23, 000 for the maintenance of the Richmond borough system for the coming year. It is fair to say, how ever, that about $3,000 of this was for promised additions, leaving the cost of supervision and maintenance about $20,000, whereas a modern system infinitely better adapted for the requirements of Richmond, could have been maintained for about $8,000 per annum. A specially antiquated feature of the New York system of fire telegraph is the battery power in use. Nearly every important city in the country, including many with a population not exceeding 25,000, is using storage battery plants, with specially adapted switchboards for the control and reliable management of the service. While the intro duction of this modern application of electric power involves some considerable expense at the start, its maintenance, as compared with the use of the old style gravity batteries, (still in use in New York), is about fifty per cent. less. The installation of the cables in the conduit, which was a too costly undertaking in the beginning, is defective. The cables were strung improperly at first, and they have simply been tinkered with, not improved ever since. Thus, at any moment, owing to a defect in any one of these cables, scores of boxes may be temporarily put out of commission, and no alarms can be turned in from, perhaps, the most congested, or the most commercially important district in the city. The wires connecting the boxes with the cables become detached, and their loose ends are sometimes found lying against the outer boxes, a grounded circuit of possibly twenty boxes or more resulting. Captain William Brophy, of Boston, a well-known expert, in conjunction with Chief Croker and other electricians of high reputation everywhere, have recently carefully examined the fire alarm system of Manhattan and the Bronx. They unanimously condemn the old 1869 box. and advocate the installation of the modern non-interference succession box, in the use of which there can be no confusion of signals nor any need of their repetition. The installation of new cables is imperatively called for, and Chief Croker advocates the erection of a separate central building in the alarm system in Manhattan and the Bronx. He says that a structure seventyfive feet square and one story in height would be ample for the purpose. The only requisite would be so to place it as to leave a clear space on all sides to guard against fire-exposure. As has been said (and the New York Herald and the Evening Post are emphatic on the subject), New York is away behind all first-class and many second, even thirdclass cities in its fire alarm telegraph system. Fifteen years ago Portland, Me., reconstructed its system (installed in 1871), adding the non-interference feature, and making it automatic, no operator being needed at headquarters. It has had only two box failures in fifteen years. Two years ago New Orleans condemned a much more perfect system than that of New York, and installed one for $72,000 with non-interference boxes, including what is known as a joker system for still alarms. San Francisco has discarded the 1869 box, and has never any failures. Baltimore installed its system in 1873, and has from time to time adopted all modem improvements. In 1903 there was not a miss or an error in 950 calls. Louisville’s system is thirty years old; recently, however, it has been greatly improved, and has never failed to transmit an alarm. In 1871 Detroit installed its system and improved it eight years ago. A lost alarm there very seldom, if ever, occurs. Des Moines, la., had its system installed in 1888. For five years there has not been a failure. In seven years Halifax has bad neither a failure nor an error. Its system, installed in 1874, is of the automatic re peating type. Thirty years ago Providence, R. I., installed a duplicate system—that is, automatic and manual—and has within a few years secured the latest improvements. It has never had a failure. St. Louis, after forty-six years’ experience, has never had more than two records “dead” in a year. Fall River, Mass., during thirty years has as a percentage of failures “practically none.” In 1898 Minneapolis and St. Paul installed their systems, and a failure of a box or to record an alarm after the lever has been pulled is “unknown.” The conduit system works perfectly. Of 525 boxes in Cincinnati, except forty, all are of a different pattern from that in New York, and during 1903 there were only two failures.