New York Fights False Alarms
THE New York Fire Department conducted during the last six months of 1934 an intensive campaign against the false fire alarm evil. The results, while encouraging, are not nearly as satisfactory as hoped for and Fire Commissioner John J. McElligott (he is hire Chief, too) is disappointed. There was a decrease of 272 false alarms under the corresponding six months of 1933.
It isn’t only New York, hut in many parts of the United States, there seems to have sprung up in the past few years a yen to pull fire alarm box handles for no other motive apparently than to see the fire fighters race through the streets of town or city.
Why the False Alarm?
Why is it, that the public seem to hold our fire fighters so cheaply, as to call them out of their stations without cause, endanger their lives on the highways, cause the temporary loss of local fire protection to communities and neighborhoods in the false alarm area affected and subject their own local government and themselves as taxpayers to the unnecessary expenditure of public monies involved in the cost of wear and tear on apparatus?
These hoodlums and some others of apparent respectability who snap the handles of fire alarm boxes for fun, wouldn’t think of tampering with a U. S. Mail box. They wouldn’t give a thought to calling an ambulance unnecessarily, or the police either. Yet, overnight, false fire alarms have become almost a national pastime—in the cosmopolitan cities, at least.
Publicity in the Anti-False Alarm Campaign
In addition to newspaper articles and printed messages to the school children, the public appeal to end the false alarm habit was also carried to the pulpits of all denominations. Each of the city’s fifty-five police court judges received at his home a personal letter from Fire Commissioner McElligott. It asked the co-operation of the Court in false fire alarm cases, and where proof of guilt was established to mete out severe penalties for the corrective effect such severity might have. A few of the Magistrate acknowledged the Fire Commissioner’s letter and encouraged him. Many of them from their utterances on the bench manifested a genuine desire to be helpful and proved it by imposing 10, 20 and 30 day prison sentences instead of fines. Where $2, $3, $5 and $10 fines were formerly imposed, the penalties now are considerably higher than had been customary. Sentences of three and six months in jail are rare, however.
False alarm complaints that used to be “thrown out” through the intervention of ward leaders, political fixers and hangers-on around police courts are now taken up with profound seriousness and without “influence.” In addition to the arresting officer, the Fire Department now has a uniformed representative in court, usually a Chief or Company Officer, who responded to the false alarm. The newspapers have been giving wider notice to arrests and to reports of penalties imposed for false fire alarms than they ever gave before. The newspaper editorial support has been “most gratifying”; the poster campaign in the cars of the subway and elevated lines as well as in the street car lines; the painted sign boards
in public squares, the co-operation of the news reel, radio broadcasting, the movietone—in fact many agencies have been utilized to make the public false alarm conscious. The result of six months of such effort has been a reduction of 20 per cent in false alarms, from 52 to 32 per cent monthly.
Guard Installed on “Spade-Type” Boxes
The addition of a guard on spade-handle box doors has had some deterring effect on false alarmers, but not entirely so. There are certain lonesome spots in the city of New York and certain other busy and noisy neighborhoods where the guard has been lifted and the spadehandle pulled down and a false alarm resulted. So far there are no instances reported of anybody lifting the guard and failing to pull down the handle under the impression that they had sent in an alarm. The guards are gradually being installed on all spade-handle boxes that have an unsavory false alarm pedigree.
Defenders of the spade-handle type of alarm box, which is the more prolific type of false alarm activity, say that false alarms of fire have increased proportionately in many cities of the United States. Unemployment, with its accompanying mischief that usually goes with idleness; the tendency to disregard law and order which followed the World War, at a time when the so-called Prohibition Law caused revulsion and contempt for constituted authority, are given as the chief causes for the increased false fire alarms.
The New York Fire Department was so seriously hampered, its apparatus so wantonly damaged and its fire fighters were run so ragged by these false alarms, that Fire Commissioner McElligott called a conference of public officials at his office on June 18 last to formulate some sort of campaign to at least reduce the growing number of false alarms. It is not thought that false alarms could be completely eliminated. The Police Commissioner, the Chief City Magistrate, the District Attorney, the school authorities, civic workers, welfare leaders, merchant groups, taxpayers’ representatives and others attended with department officials such as the Deputy Fire Commissioner, the Chief of the Fire Alarm Bureau, the Chief Fire Marshal, the Secretary of the Fire Department, Assistant Chiefs of the Fire Department and so on. They all pledged co-operation. Fire Marshal Brophy carried on much of the work in detail for Commissioner McElligott.
Firemen Killed and Injured in Runs
Firemen have been killed and injured responding to these false alarms. This record applies with equal force to volunteers as well as to paid fire fighters. It appears that unfair and cowardly advantage is being taken of the simplicity and convenience of the facility which municipalities have provided in order to send a call for the firemen with the least possible effort and the least possible information beforehand as to how to sound an alarm of fire.
The city of New York last year had 32,148 alarms of fire from public street boxes, of which 13,081 were maliciously false. This was 891 more than the total number of false alarms during the year 1933. Public street box alarms only are reported here, since the subject of false alarms goes more to the relationship between the public on the street and the type of alarm box used mostly as the instrument of the false alarm method of public mischief.
New York Type of Alarm Boxes
New York has three general types of alarm box as far as John R. Citizen is concerned. They are in the order of seniority:
- Turn handle, open door and pull hook.
- Turn handle only (single action locked door).
- Pull spade-handle (single action locked door).
Type No. 3 is simplest and quickest to operate. Therefore it is the more attractive and convenient to false alarm fiends The New York Fire Department recognized this, as might be gleaned from the fact that for the past year, the spade-handle boxes in certain neighborhoods where false alarms are numerous, were equipped with a handle guard or “dog.” This auxiliary appliance on the spade-handles had the effect of increasing the operation of sending in an alarm from a single movement to a double action. The guard is a hinged lap over the pull-down spade handle. The guard is labeled “LIFT” and the spade-handle is labeled “PULL.” In other words you lift the guard, hold it up, snap down the spade handle and in goes the alarm.
There are those who declare that wide-spread publicity given to the false alarm crusade, has the opposite
effect; that it causes increase in false alarms because it suggests something not previously thought of. This observation is not agreed with by those who are diligently trying to reduce the number of false alarms.
Other skeptics in the Fire Department say the decrease in false alarms during the last six months of 1934 is due to the weather and that there will be another false alarm epidemic in the Spring. They offer no substitute remedy or correction of the evil.
Malicious false alarms in New York from 1924 to 1934 inclusive have increased from 19 to 47 per cent annually. The record looks like this: 1924 and 1925—19 per cent; 1926—10; 1927—14; 1928—15; 1929 and 1930-20; 1931—24; 1932—26; 1933—31; and 1934— 47 per cent.
During the first six months of 1934 there were 16,163 street boxes pulled of which 6,225 or 38 per cent were maliciously false. The last six months of 19,14 during the false alarm campaign is reflected in the accompanying sketch by months. The figures are based on public street boxes only. They do not include verbals, special calls, automatics, etc.
On New Year’s Eve for a two hour period from 11 :30 p.m. to 1 :30 New Year’s morning, the Engine and Truck Company first due only responded to street box alarms. Other alarms, including verbals by telephone, were an swered with full assignments. In this two hour period there were 125 street boxes pulled, of which 109 were maliciously false. The order curtailing full responses for the two hour period saved a total of 432 apparatus runs.
For the first time in New York City, policemen were assigned to guard fire alarm boxes in the Times Square and other Broadway areas on New Year’s eve. In conjunction with this the Police Department was requested by the Fire Commissioner to announce over the police radio system the receipt and location of all alarms of fire. So effective were the responses and the action taken by Police Radio Motor Patrols that the Police Department wrequested to continue the practice until further orders. Now, New York, like most of the smaller communities of the country, is broadcasting alarms of fire on the police network and the results thus far obtained have more than justified the new policy.