How New York Has Employed Communications Over 100 Years
FDNY pioneered use of radio in early days of wireless telegraph
NEW YORK maintains the largest fire communications system in the world and its efficiency and adequacy conform to approved standards of the most modern practices. The facilities available today—wired telegraph, 2-way radio, the public telephone and the services of private fire alarm companies—are a far cry from the primitive methods used a century ago.
The paid department was established at a period when the discovery and reporting of fires was largely dependent on the alertness of “bellringers” stationed in 11 lookout towers. The telegraph system which the Metropolitan Fire Department took over from the volunteers in the summer of 1865 consisted of 11 telegraph lines connecting eight lookout towers and 68 houses of volunteer companies with a central office in the basement of City Hall.
In each of the engine houses—all below 14th Street—was an instrument for transmitting to the central office signals formed of Morse code dots and dashes, and “a machine designed to strike on a gong any number of blows to indicate the locality of a fire.” This system did not include street boxes, which were introduced in 1870.
The system was in bad shape but Charles L. Chapin, the new superintendent of fire alarm telegraph, energetically undertook its rehabilitation, moving the central office to fire headquarters in Mercer Street. Street corner location numbers were set up and the alarm-sending instruments altered so that, instead of Morse code characters being recorded on the tape at the central office, the signals were registered by dots indicating the location number.
The number of engine houses below 14th Street had been reduced from 68 to 31 by the installation of the paid Metropolitan companies, and so the alarm stations of 1865 included eight in lookout towers, 31 in firehouses, six in police stations, and two in stations of the fire patrol. “Dummy” location numbers were also set up.
In 1866 relays and local bells were placed in the engine houses above 14th and below 86th Streets and these companies provided with a Morse key for sending signals to the central office. The commissioners proudly announced that “there are now 78 places in the City of New York where notice of fires can be communicated by telegraph.” The first assignment card of the department was promulgated at this time.
As a means of more promptly discovering fires, a system of street patrols was inaugurated, each company being required to have two men on patrol at all hours of the day and night, covering designated beats which started and terminated at the fire station. In commenting on the value of the patrols the commissioners wrote: “The minds of the men are thus kept constantly employed, their time becomes fully occupied and habits of value and usefulness are engendered which would otherwise be unobtainable.” And this in the days of continuous duty with 24 hours off once a month. A variation of the foot patrols was the occasional use of mounted patrols during periods of heavy snow-fall when hard going on foot would delay the men running to their companies to report fires discovered by them.
Contract for a complete new system of street boxes and central office was executed August 1, 1869 with C. T. & J. N. Chester. That part of the new system below 14th Street went into service in March of 1870, and on January 1, 1871 the boxes above 14th Street were ready for use. The completed system covered all of Old New York—Manhattan Island and the adjacent islands in the East River—and consisted of 548 alarm boxes on 41 circuits. The new central office was located on the second floor of Mercer Street headquarters.
—official FDNY photo
photo by James Heffernan
In March of 1878 a new central office on the top of the Mercer Street building was “cut in,” with improved instruments and enlarged equipment— the system having grown to a total of 973 boxes, and having been extended to the annexed “Westchester territory” above the Harlem River by means of a submarine cable at Macombs Dam.
In these days of instant and unlimited communication it is difficult to realize the paid department was 15 years old before the first telephones were installed and that for many years the only communication between the various units and officials was by messenger or telegraph. Messages could be sent by Morse code over the “talking circuits,” or slowly and laboriously spelled out by the use of a telegraph “dial machine,” which was installed in the several battalion headquarters and some company quarters.
The only company above 86th Street which had telegraph instruments on a “talking circuit” before the days of the telephone was Ladder 14, in 125th Street. When companies in upper Manhattan Island, and later in the Westchester territory, wished to telegraph a communication they had to send a messenger to Ladder 14, where the message should be tapped out over the telegraph lines. Companies below 86th Street which did not have telegraph facilities were equipped with Morse keys and small bells, and a list of code signals.
When the paid Department of Fire of the City of Brooklyn was organized in 1869, the alarm system was very much like that in New York—with four lookout, or bell, towers. In 1880 a Gamewell system of 59 street boxes, and central office in the old headquarters at 367 Jay Street, was completed. An entirely new central office was installed in the new building in Jay Street in 1894; the old central office being continued in “standby” service across the street, where it had been located while the present headquarters building was being erected.
Four of the towns annexed to Brooklyn in 1894-1895 had Gamewell systems and these were continued in independent operation until they could be connected to the Brooklyn central office in Jay Street. The Long Island City system was tied in with Brooklyn on annexation in 1898, and in 1905 was switched over to the newly established Queens Central Office in Jamaica Town Hall. The Newton, Flushing and Jamaica systems were then consolidated and connected to the Jamaica office; but the system in the Rockaways continued to operate independently until the present Queens Central Office in Forest Park was opened in 1928.
The alarm service in the borough of the Bronx was separated from the Manhattan system in 1902, and a Bronx Central Office was established in the station of Engine 46, on Tremont Avenue. In January of 1924 a newly built and equipped isolated central office in Bronx Park replaced the out-of-date plant at 46 Engine.
The Richmond Borough (Staten Island) telegraph alarm system was put in service at the beginning of 1904. The original installation included about 100 street boxes—a number which has grown to 1800 over the intervening years! In 1906, a few months after the paid service was extended to Staten Island, the central office was moved to the new borough hall at St. George, where it remained until the ultramodern plant in Clove Park was opened in 1962.
The invention and development of wireless telegraph in the early part of the century made it appear that a major handicap of the fire service might be on the way to a solution. In the marine division the limitations of megaphone or flag signals during the daytime, or lamps at night, and the inability to maintain communication when away from berths, was a particular problem.
In 1913 two experimental wireless telegraph transmitting and receiving stations were installed on the fireboat Duane—Engine 85—and at the Manhattan central office in 67th Street. On December 23, 1913, at 3:35 p.m. the first department wireless message was transmitted by the Morse code operator on the Duane. The message was answered by the wireless operator at the Manhattan office. The experiment proved the merit of wireless communication, but the expense of employing radio operators on an around-the-clock schedule on the 10 fireboats and at the fire alarm offices caused the idea to be abandoned.
With the introduction of dependable two-way radio telephone in the late 1920’s, the objection to the employment of operating personnel could no longer be used and extensive field tests were conducted which demonstrated the possibility of a radioequipped fireboat fleet. Finally, in 1937, a two-way AM radio telephone system was installed and each fireboat equipped. The system was extended to the automobiles of department officials and put in constant contact with situations requiring attention. This was a service long dreamed of.
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—official FDNY photos
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By 1945 such tremendous strides had been made in radio technology that the AM system of the FDNY was already obsolete. Studies and field tests of FM equipment were undertaken and it was determined that six separate systems—one for each borough and one for city-wide operation— would be required for adequate coverage with the type of service desired. These six systems would require 12 frequencies, but only three were available and no more could be anticipated until radio equipment was made to operate on a closer separation of frequencies. This was not feasible until late in 1949 when the FDNY pioneered in the use of equipment which many experts had believed impracticable.
Plans were made for the installation of four separate systems requiring eight frequencies. The systems were completed and put in operation in 1952. Now five systems are serving the FDNY, the additional channels having been secured in 1964.
One illustration of how radio has affected New York’s operations has been brought to light in FIRE ENGINEERING’S recent survey. The 28 cities of this country with population totals over 500,000 employ nearly 900 portable radio units. Of these, more than one-third are in service with the FDNY.
The adaption of the two-way radio revolutionized many of the department’s procedures and increased the availability of fire fighting equipment. It established a great new epoch in the history of the New York Fire Department.