Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fire Alarm Call Boxes soon to be History

Trademark is clenched fist and lightning bolts
over the company name, registered 1879
Maynard's outdoor fire alarm call box system will be replaced with new technology. The existing boxes are painted red and white (with one exception), and either attached to a telephone pole, the side of a building or mounted on a pedestal, such as the one facing Nason Street in Memorial Park. In Maynard, the top of the face of each call box (with one exception) displays GAMEWELL below a clenched hand holding lightning bolts. This symbol was registered as a trademark in 1879. A few of Maynard's call boxes are topped with red lights. Sides have decals - often severely faded - reading "FIRE" in red letters on a white background.

The exceptions: On the wall of Suburban Glass and Mirror, on Powder Mill Road, the call box is branded SAFA. The initials stand for Superior American Fire Alarm & Signal Co., Meriden, Connecticut. SAFA was competing with Gamewell in the 1950s, but no longer exists by that name. How Maynard ended up with one SAFA box is a mystery. [UPDATE: The SAFA call box has been removed.] The other exception is that the box at Reo Park is painted white with blue trim.

January 29, 1921: Maynard Hotel lost to fire despite
timely efforts of the fire department
Gamewell, named after the owner, John N. Gamewell, was the New York and Massachusetts based company that had provided Maynard with its first box, in 1892, and is still in business today as a division of Honeywell. Because of a peaked roof design their outdoor call boxes are referred to as cottage style.

From a website: "Boxes were installed on buildings such as churches, schools, movie theaters and major factories. This was to provide a reliable method of sending a fire alarm from the protected facility to the fire department. These boxes were placed to provide for a rapid response to incidents where there was a large life-loss potential, schools for instance, or the potential for a large economic impact to the community such as a large factory."

Older boxes were made of cast iron and weighed close to 75 pounds. Manufacturing was located in Newton, MA, on the Charles River, a long-time iron works site. Decades later, cast aluminum replaced iron, so the newer boxes weighed a tad under 28 pounds. Up until some time in the 1970's the lower front read "Newton, Massachusetts," changed to "Medway, Massachusetts." Most (all?) of Maynard's call boxes read "Newton."

Gamewell call box on pedestal, Memorial Park
Click on any photo to enlarge
As noted above, Maynard acquired its first alarm box in 1892. Expansion was slow. The count reached 8 by 1903, 22 by 1938 and 30 by 1953. Maynard currently maintains more than 70 call boxes, plus a handful that are still out there but not operative, so wrapped in plastic.

Back when the town's annual reports used to have a list of call boxes, there was a subset described as phantom boxes. This term referred to sites throughout town without real boxes yet assigned box numbers. There was a filing system at the fire station with all the box numbers - real and phantom - and when a call came by telephone, the desk man pulled the card and then tapped out the box number (and thus location) to the responding crew.

However, in this era of 9-1-1 and cell phones, the use of outdoor-mounted call boxes to report fires has dramatically declined while the cost of maintaining the system has increased. The fire department's  intent, over the next two years, is to ship Maynard's boxes to other towns. Maynard's system will be modernized to radio call boxes akin to cell phone technology.  

One of the old Gamewell boxes - from the site of the now demolished Oriental Delight restaurant, formerly Russo's - has been donated to the Maynard Historical Society. It was recently on display at the Maynard Public Library as part of an exhibit on the history of the fire department.

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