The fire alarm system of the City of New York, its past history and the present plans for its radical improvement, as announced with the consent of the fire commissioner, Robert Adamson, on October 28th, 1914, was described at a meeting of the municipal engineers by Putnam A. Bates, E. E., chief of the Bureau of Fire Alarm Telegraph, who said in part:

The movement for an improved fire alarm system for the City of New York, which the present administration through its fire commissioner, Hon. Robert Adamson, has actively taken in hand, was started in December, 1904. In February, 1905, the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, under the direction of Messrs. Carty and Miller, signalling experts, made a study of the problem and rendered a report condemning the present system as beyond repair. ”This investigation was limitetT to conditions on the Island of Manhattan. The meat of this report was, that: The only remedy would be to install a new system, separate and distinct from the present one, and with the new system established the old one should be abandoned. The following year the city itself took hold and in March, 1907, with the aid of the same engineers, preliminary plans and specifications were prepared for a modern fire alarm system for the island of Manhattan. Following this, however, there was no thorough attempt to engage in the work of reconstruction until about four years later. Small appropriations of corporate stock were set aside for this much-needed improvement as early as 1903, but these funds were largely diverted to continually pressing needs incidental to keeping the old system in operation, and in the ten years which followed, the money set aside for installing a new fire alarm system in all boroughs, has aggregated the substantial sum of $1,609,000. That considerable progress toward reconstruction has not been accomplished is a matter of reflecting little credit, being born of no definite plan of procedure. The preliminary plans that were prepared for Manhattan required the building of the new system before the abandonment of the old. This course should have been followed, but unfortunately it was not, and the new contracts that have been entered into, aggregate too small an amount to make for economic handling, in consequence, they constitute patch work at high rate of cost, y My conception of the problem differs from tins, as I see no valid reason why the practical installation of a fire alarm system for a large city should follow a different course than that usual in important engineering operations of other character. When a sufficient amount of work is undertaken an adequate force is justified and the undertaking can be divided into units or divisions, the size of which may be increased as the individuals become more skilled, but without corresponding increase in the engineering staff as a whole. With such a plan of organization, material progress will at once be made. The agreement entered into by the city with the Empire City Subway Company, in 1891, makes it mandatory upon that company to provide the city with such ducts as may be needed for the fire alarm wires in all streets and avenues where subways exist, or where there may be a demand for subways. In taking up this problem, my first inclination was to find out accurately the disposition made of outstanding appropriations and the extent of all new work that had been undertaken, which I found to consist of the following: A new central station building for each of the three larger boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx; underground service cables for connection to 138 street boxes in Manhattan; similar underground service installation connecting 199 street boxes in Brooklyn; an important underground feeder line reaching to southwest Brooklyn; bridge cable connecting Brooklyn with Manhattan; underground service cables for connection to 119 street boxes in the Bronx; a similar underground installation connecting 8 street boxes in Queens; a supply of 2,000 alarm post bases; a supply of 300 cast iron manhole frames, and concentrating subways leading to the new Manhattan central office building and the similar building in The Bronx respectively. The aggregate of these contracts amounts to about one-third of the total appropriations made thus far, all of which were found to be in an unfinished state with the exception of four of the smaller items, representing a total of about 5 per cent. The unencumbered balances were about equal to the aggregate of the contracts placed, leaving a remainder of about one-third of the total approprations diverted to other uses, principally that of maintaining the old system.

Early History of Fire Alarm Telegraph.

In 1865, the fire alarm plant consisted of twelve bell towers or look-out stations, located at points of advantage, such as the cupola of the City Hall, Washington Market, Essex Market, Jefferson Market, 33rd street, 51st street, 85th street and what is now known as Mt. Morris Park, This latter tower, it is interesting to note, is still in existence. The mode of operation was to watch from these towers for smoke of other indications of fire (this was done by the use of a spy glass) and by means of the Morse telegraph, to signal over connecting wires directly to the central office. The signal was then communicated to the department by striking the bells at the twelve bell towers. The central office at the City Hall was the terminus of four lines of wire connecting the Post Office, Essex Market, Union Market, Macdougal, Jefferson and 51st street towers. In each of these stations was placed a main circuit magnet and bell and a circuit breaking key. On these bells were sounded the signals indicating the district in which the fire was located, with the numerical designation of the station giving the alarm. The central telegraph office was transferred from the City Hall to what was known as “Fireman’s Hall,” the headquarters of the fire department. It is an interesting fact that some of the fire telegraph apparatus installed at this time has performed its service until the present day, a period of almost fifty years. This primitive system was soon found inadequate and in 1870 a complete new’ installation was made at a cost of $450,000, and including about 578 street alarm stations. After the installation*of this new system the records of the department show that few difficulties were experienced for a period of ten years. We are, therefore, carried to the year of 1881. The description of the damage to the fire alarm system caused by the winter at that time closely resembled the conditions as they were reported in March last. This serious situation was followed by the passing of resolutions and much public comment as to the need for carrying farther the extent to which the fire alarm system should be improved. The storms of 1888, and again of 1914, completely demolished the fire telegraph system not in Manhattan alone, but in Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Richmond. Through sheer good fortune New York City has passed through three sensational moments when it would seem that only the protection of a higher power has saved it from great disaster. The storms of the winter just past called for a patrol of one thousand men and a period of disorder of the circuits of about thirty days.

The Present Installation.

In a large city like New York, the operation of the fire alarm is accomplished manually. Many attempts have been made in the past to devise ways and means whereby the full operation might be performed automatically, but so far none has been evolved which is feasible and safe for a large city. In the present installation there are two distinct classes of circuits, box circuits and engine house circuits. The box circuits connect the central office with a certain number of street boxes. All street fire alarm boxes in the greater city are operated on “closed circuit.” It was strongly emphasized in the preliminary plans that the central office of the fire alarm telegraph system should be afforded the maximum degree of protection against hazards of any nature, and in order that it should occupy a place which would form an economic and safe centre for the cable system covering the area to be protected, it was recommended that the central office building for Manhattan should be located on Transverse Road No. 1, running through the southern section of Central Park. The exact location was not defined and the final disposition of the matter by the city was to locate this building in Central Park, but on Transverse Road No. 2, instead of No. 1, this decision having been reached as the result of recommendations by the Department of Parks. The fact that the building is in the park is an unquestioned advantage, but unfortunately its exact location is surrounded byhazards which will necessitate additional constructive work to insure safety. In planning such a building the aim must be to make it absolutely fireproof and in so far as possible immune from all hazards such as earthquakes, wind storms, explosions or floods, and it is obvious that such hazardous conditions as the presence of a large body of water, such as now exists in the lower reservoir, approximately 150 feet north of the cite selected for the Manhattan central office, is a hazard, and the presence of a 20-inch and 48-inch water main now resting in Transverse Road immediately in front of the fire alarm building, also constitutes a very serious hazard. This is equally true of the gas main, which lies in that same street. In locating the Brooklyn and Bronx new central office building, the cite was selected in a public park in each instance, but the hazardous conditions just mentioned in reference to the Manhattan central office are not present. The interior plumbing systems are, however, and the installation of the main service electrical connections will be restudied to avoid the possibility of interruption to electrical supply through any internal disorders.


Locations for Street Boxes.

In planning the locations for the street boxes, the general rule, which is now being followed as indicated on the present plans, is that in following any street in any direction, a box will be found at every other corner. The location of the street boxes must necessarily be governed very largely by the nature of the property as affecting the fire hazard, and I believe the opinion of the chief of the department and of the various chiefs, as to the specific needs in each locality, will furnish the practical arguments from which the best decision may be reached regarding the location of street alarm boxes in most instances. The fire alarm service to schools and city buildings must necessarily be treated as additional to the street box service, but, however, in a similar manner. The high pressure pumping stations will be provided with alarm receiving apparatus of the same nature as that provided for the apparatus houses under the jurisdiction of the fire department. In like manner the fire patrol stations will be equipped.

Underground Wires.

It is the purpose of the present administration to place all new wires which.form the fire alarm telegraph circuits underground as far as practicable. The central office equipment in the case of the three boroughs in which new buildings have been erected is yet to be designed, but in general these installations shall be of such nature as to operate properly and efficiently in all respects over the circuits they will control and in connection with the fire alarm box and gong station apparatus which will form a part of the new system when installed. The new installation will be so planned as to enable it to operate in strict accordance with the present routine of the present fire fighting companies and officers of the fire department, and it is the intention of the present administration to so plan the new system as to allow for sufficient flexibility as to its mode of operation so as to be readily adaptable to any changes in the routine of the fire fighting forces that may in future be considered necessary or advisable by the proper fire department authorities. These conditions were largely defined in the preliminary plans prepare_d by Messrs. Carty and Miller, and it is the intention of the present administration to observe as closely as practical conditions may permit the principles of engineering that have thus already been laid down in the preliminary plans for a modern system on the island of Manhattan. The fire alarm equipment in the outlying borough is a matter of no small importance, especially so in consequence of the enormous increase in the number of wires comprising the electrical systems, the majority of which are still carried overhead on pole lines. The interference of electric light ‘wires with those of the fire alarm telegraph is a source of constant menace. In a number of instances on record, street alarm box circuits have for hours been rendered useless through the destruction of the electrical mechanism of the boxes due to the crossing of conductors with wires carrying heavy currents of high potential. The only manner in which this constant source of difficulty may permanently be eliminated is by the laying of all conductors underground. This is the chief problem incidental to the completion of modernizing New York City’s fire alarm plant. The transferring of the circuits to the subways which was begun on the island of Manhattan as early as 1888, has to some extent been continued each year, but at entirely too slow a rate. The work has been prosecuted under many disadvantages, however, and the appropriations have been adequate only for extensions of small extent. The work has also been delayed through the impractical procedure of attempting to make these extensions before a complete plan for the entire undertaking had been prepared. In past years, as a source of relief in the matter of dangers due to continued use of overhead circuits, the city has availed itself of the opportunity offered to attach its wires and cables to the elevated railroad structure. both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, and while this method served its purpose to a large degree, it was at the best a makeshift not long to be continued. With the consolidation of the five boroughs into the greater city, the problems and difficulties incidental to the new organization of a better fire alarm service became greatly increased as each of the outlying boroughs had merely a semblance of a fire alarm system and this of a most inadequate character. The work of placing underground the wires of the fire alarm telegraph service in all boroughs should be pushed forward with all possible dispatch until every circuit is placed underground in the most approved modern style. The entire extent of the circuit mileage including both the underground and overhead wires make an aggregate in the five boroughs at the present time between 3.500 and 4.000 miles. It will be seen from this that the more substantial is the method of installing these conductors, the less will be the yearly cost to maintain them. The desired end can at this time be accomplished at a minimum of expense owing to the existence of extensive lines of underground conduits, a large part of which the public service subway companies have installed within the last ten years. The problem, therefore, is to create as promptly as possible an adequate cable plant that will provide fof such future growth as may be necessary to plan for and which will efficiently operate under present service requirements. These cables when installed in the existing underground conduits will provide the most important single item of a complete modern system. The system in the various boroughs is at the present time so antiquated as to be virtually a disgrace for such a municipality as New York City to owm. Some of the original apparatus installed from 18⅜5 to 1870 is still in service in parts of the city, and it is safe to say that, with the exception of the central office of the Borough of Queens and similar installation in the -Borough of Richmond, the entire telegraph system of the greater city is obsolete. The line plant in the various boroughs is inadequate and unsatisfactory. In all boroughs outside of Manhattan overhead construction is universal, even in Manhattan an altogether too large a proportionate amount of overhead wires is maintained, namely, in the northerly part of the island. The underground construction in Manhattan is inadequate and in an advanced state of decay. The greater amout of the total mileage of underground cable in Manhattan is carried in high tension subways exposed to serious danger of destruction from currents of high potentiality. Seventy-five per cent, of the area of Manhattan relics for protection upon two cables on the elevated structure. YVhen these cables were installed, steam was the motive power and damage to the cable was compartively slight. ’Since the introduction of electric power the cable is exposed to constant danger of destruction. In the other boroughs overhead construction is almost exclusively used; no uniform plan or system in routing of the various lines has up to this time been adopted.

Scope of the New Plans.

A brief statement of the scope of the new pians as they are now being prepared for the several boroughs undoubtedly will be of interest.


The plan of street box locations provides an installation of approximately 1,650 street stations, or fire alarm box posts. These are to be so spaced that a person standing at any one point will not have to travel more than 400 feet to the nearest fire alarm box, and in many cases, especially below Fulton street, this distance will be much less. It is proposed that all of the feeder and distribution wires shall be in cables laid underground which insures the greatest protection against interruption of the service as well as a maximum useful life.

The Bronx.

The new work proposed for this borough will be of such character as to constitute a ten-year improvement. The majority of the feeders will consist of cables entirely underground and a large portion of the distribution circuits will also be placed underground, owing to the availability of conduits which have or will be provided by the commercial subway companies.


It is proposed to provide a permanent installation for one-third of this borough, as the vast extent of this borough in itself makes the planning of a modern fire alarm installation a very difficult and extensive problem, unless taken up in subdivisions and the problem for each solved according to local conditions. The entire treatment of the borough does not offer any unsurmountable problem, but it is my judgment that the final system for entire borough should not be installed at one time, owing to the relatively undeveloped character of the property on one side of the borough, as against that of the other. All along the water front from Newtown Creek to, and including, Coney Island, valuable property and many lives are at stake today through inadequate fire alarm protection, and in this important section it is contemplated to install as promptly as appropriations can be obtained a modern system.

Richmond and Queens.

Except for those extensions which are needed to rectify unsafe conditions, it is not my intention to prepare plans at this time for extensive improvements. However, a considerable quantity of additional boxes will be installed in each of these two boroughs and the circuits in the well built up sections are to be laid underground.

Cost of Installation.

The cost of installing the complete fire alarm system in all boroughs I have estimated at $5,000,000. However, to carry out the plan on the basis of the recommendations I have recently submitted to the Fire Commissioner would involve an immediate expenditure of approximately,000.

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