Metropolitan Plan Includes 23 Municipalities

Metropolitan Plan Includes 23 Municipalities

Large and small cities of Greater Boston area linked by fire alarm telegraph

“GREATER BOSTON” is a somewhat vague appelation. Various agencies use different groupings of communities surrounding Boston as suit their own particular needs and the term has no legal status. However in 1945 the State Civil Defense Agency divided the State of Massachusetts into 14 fire districts, with District 13 made up of 23 cities and towns within an approximate 10-mile radius of Boston.

These 23 municipalities had over a long period of time, developed a smooth working mutual aid plan that had operated with remarkable success, despite the fact that it had never had a real strong governing authority. Boston and its environs, being the birthplace of American independence, resent any encroachment on the autonomy of their local government. Therefore this plan is operated through a democratic process of mutual agreements between the various chiefs. This plan indirectly ties in a much larger area than that defined as District 13, as all of the perimeter communities have further mutual aid plans with departments beyond the defined district. A number of them have direct fire alarm telegraph connections.

First agreement in 1876

Probably the most significant step in the development of definite planned mutual aid in this area occurred in 1876 when the City of Boston entered into an agreement with the City of Chelsea, to allow Boston to run a fire alarm line through Chelsea to East Boston, which is part of the City of Boston. Chelsea at that time was accessible from the main part of the city only by ferry across the harbor or a circuitous route through Chelsea. In the agreement, it was stipulated that Boston would install a gong and fire alarm box in the Chelsea City Hall, for the purpose of summoning aid to either city.

Typical assignment card, as used throughout the Boston Mutual Aid System, is that for Box 24, Brookline, a block away from Boston’s Box 2314. A first alarm brings Brookline Ladders 1 and 2, Engines 1, 3 and 3, with Boston Engine 37 to the fire. A second alarm brings Brookline Ladder 3 with Engines 2 and 7 to the fire and Boston Ladder 30 to cover

This arrangement proved its worth on April 12, when Chelsea was swept by a general conflagration. At that time, Boston dispatched 13 engine companies, two ladder companies and a fireboat to Chelsea. This connection of the fire alarm systems of the two cities has been maintained continuously to this day.

In the years following, most of the departments in the Boston area entered into some sort of mutual aid agreement. Around the turn of the century, arrangements were in force where Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline could obtain assistance from Boston by sending a messenger to pull the nearest Boston box. He would then present the officer in charge of the responding Boston companies with a card signed by the chief of the department requesting aid. Between 1907 and 1944, Boston and Dedham maintained alarm boxes on the same poles at four locations along their boundary, with a sign instructing the public to use both boxes, which brought response from both departments.

New problems

The growth of the suburbs at this time also brought new problems. Because of the irregular boundaries of the various communities, and the haphazard layout of streets, there were buildings on one side of a street in one city and those on the opposite side in another. Boundary lines cut through buildings, and in other places, buildings in one city were accessible only by traveling over the streets of another. There were agreements in effect that provided first-alarm response from more than one department into some of these areas. However, there was a reluctance on the part of some officials to become too deeply committed, because of possible legal technicalities. The general laws of that time did not allow a municipality to expend public funds outside its own borders. There was also the question of liability in case of death or injury to men or damage to equipment when operating outside their corporate limits.

On January 4, 1925, a fire broke out in the Scobey Hospital located on Beacon Street in Boston at the Brookline town line. While the first-due Boston companies were struggling to control the fire and evacuate the patients, the crew of Brookline Engine 3 sat in their quarters a short distance away, unaware of the fire. Boston companies responded to the extra alarms fighting traffic half-way across the city. This incident clearly demonstrated the need for closer cooperation and utilization of manpower and equipment between neighboring departments.

The Massachusetts Fire Chiefs Club was instrumental in having legislation passed in that same year which clearly defined the rights and responsibilities of fire officials. Section 59A of Chapter 48 to the General Laws allows any fire department to operate in any municipality with all the rights and protection that it would have in its own city or town.

At about this same time, through frequent meetings of the chiefs of the metropolitan area, assignments were being rearranged to provide response to first alarms from borderline boxes by the closest company, regardless of the corporate boundary. Automatic filling-in and response to multiple and simultaneous alarms were also provided.

By 1930 there were Boston fire alarm lines connecting 10 surrounding communities. At present 22 of the 23 municipalities comprising District 13, are connected by fire alarm telegraph.

The effectiveness of the plan was clearly demonstrated at the Bellflower Street conflagration in Boston on May 22, 1964. (See October 1964 issue FIRE ENGINEERING. At one time there were 650 fire fighters on the scene including 150 from mutual aid companies. Boston committed 33 engines, seven ladders and one rescue company to the fire; in addition, 28 mutual aid companies responded to the fire.

46 alarms answered

To protect the balance of the city, 31 Boston companies and 24 mutual aid companies manned the stations, bringing the available force up to 73 percent of full strength. This force answered 46 separate alarms throughout the city during the course of the conflagration.

Most of the movements between stations and to the fire were directed bv fire alarm telegraph. Following the fifth alarm which brought 18 engines, four ladders and the rescue company to the fire, six special calls were struck including the Mutual Aid Signal 8112, bringing 15 additional engine and four ladder companies to the fire. The fire alarm telegraph is the basic means of communication; telephone and radio are considered supplementary.

The connecting fire alarm lines and related equipment are maintained by the municipality in which they are located. During major fires, fuel and oil are usually provided by the nearest department having a mobile supply available. The same is true of such items as air tanks or foam. There has never been any quibbling over the cost of these items, which is considered minor in comparison to the value of the property usually involved or threatened.

Boston marine division

The only department in the plan having a marine division is Boston, which maintains two fireboats, berthed at the same dock, off Atlantic Avenue, in the inner harbor. These boats, designated as Engines 31 and 47, are converted minesweepers. Each is powered for propulsion by a 400-hp diesel engine. Pumping capacity of each boat is rated at 6000 gpm. at 150 psi.

Each boat has a cable plugged into the fire alarm and telephone circuits and receives all box alarms on a register the same as a land station. They answer 97 boxes along the waterfront in the City of Boston and under the mutual aid plan answer a first alarm from the box at the United States Naval Hospital which is located in the City of Chelsea. Special calls will dispatch boats to Sommerville, Everett, Bevere and Quincy. As these boats are quite seaworthy, they are prepared to make runs outside the mutual aid district, if requested, and have gone as far as Hull, a distance of more than 10 miles by water.

Communication aboard the boat when away from the dock is by the regular fire department radio, which allows contact between fire alarm headquarters and also between chief officers cars. A separate radio system provides communication with the United States Coast Guard base and their patrol boats.

The Boston Fire Department does not maintain an ambulance service; this work is done by police, hospitals and private serv ices. However some of the departments in the mutual aid plan do maintain ambulances which are available upon request.

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Special apparatus

All of the departments in the mutual aid plan have special type apparatus such as lighting or rescue units or combinations of the two. These units do not normally respond to the automatic mutual aid assignments but are available on special call for any unusual incident. The Boston Fire Department, which at one time had three rescue companies in service, now has but one heavy rescue unit. Carrying a crew of an officer and four men, this company covers the principal mercantile district. Replacing the two rescue companies that were disbanded are seven engine rescue squad companies. These are regular pumpers having extra long compartments carrying rescue equipment.

Most of the smaller departments operate rescue units with only one or two men and depend upon using men from engine or ladder companies to fill in when extra manpower is required.

Scuba team

A unique unit of the Boston Fire Department is its scuba diver team. This group operates somewhat in the manner of a volunteer company within the paid department. Organized in October 1960, this group at once gained the enthusiastic support of the chief of the department—at that time, the late John Martin—who gave these men his wholehearted cooperation.

The team consists of 14 welltrained, seasoned divers. These men are assigned to companies in different sections of the city and to shifts that bring four of the men on duty at all times. This group not only engages in underwater recovery work but has done very effective work in fighting fires under wooden piers.

The department has provided them with a truck having a fully enclosed, heated body which provides a place for the men to change into their diving gear. It is equipped with a generator; flood and underwater lights; ropes; a variety of cutting tools; a cascade system consisting of twelve 240-cubicfoot tanks charged to a pressure of 2500 psi; along with a bank of fully charged diving tanks. Each man owns his diving gear which he carries in his car at all times. In the event of a call for the service of this group, a 10-43 signal is sounded on the fire alarm system, followerd by further verbal instructions over the telephone. The divers on duty are immediately excused from their respective companies and respond in their own cars either to fire headquarters, where the truck is stationed, or to the scene of the incident —whichever is the most convenient.

Like any other of the Boston Fire Department facilities, the services of the scuba diving team are available to any community outside the city upon request to the chief of the department. They have made several runs of more than 20 miles outside the city, the longest run being to Provincetown, at the extreme tip of Cape Cod, a distance of 123 miles, to assist in controlling a pier fire.

While working anywhere outside of their own municipality, all mutual aid companies become subordinate to the chief of the department where the incident is located.

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