Fire Alarm Boxes in Rutherford
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Robert Karpowicz was born and raised in Rutherford. Karpowicz became interested in firefighting at a very young age. At age 18 he joined the Rutherford Fire Department as an Auxiliary Firefighter and currently has 28 years of experience as a Firefighter in Rutherford Engine Company 2. He rose up the ranks and also served as Captain of Rutherford Engine Company No. 2. Understanding the need for the fire department's prompt responses to fire emergencies as a youngster, Robert earned the nickname “Box Kid” as a child growing up in Rutherford. This is Rutherford spoke with Robert about how he earned this nickname and the fireboxes that can be found in Rutherford.
TIR: When did you become interested in firefighting?
RK: My interest in firefighting started when I was 5 years old. In the late 70's, there was an arsonist going around town setting garages on fire. One particular night, an arsonist in my neighborhood torched my neighbor's garage two doors down from me. I woke up hearing an explosion (the explosion was the tires popping from a vehicle inside the garage). I woke up my parents and they called the fire department. Shortly after, I heard the fire horn blasting from Borough Hall, calling for the fire department. I asked my parents about the noise, and they told me it was how the fire department is notified for a fire. They then showed me the list of the fire alarm boxes hanging up inside of a cabinet door, in case of a fire. I learned at a young age that the series of blasts corresponded with the location of the box. So two blasts, a brief pause, one blast, a brief pause and three blasts meant that the fire was in the vicinity of Mortimer Avenue and West Park Place. From that point on, every time the fire horn sounded, I would ask my parents the location from the box list. I learned the location of every fire alarm box in town. My family purchased a police scanner after the fire and I started to listen to the Rutherford Police, Fire and Ambulance Corps.
As I got older, I began to ride my bike to fire calls. Eventually, I befriended the firefighters and earned the nickname "Box Kid", which evolved to "Boxman" or simply "Box" as I joined the fire department.
TIR: What is the municipal fire alarm box system?
RK: The municipal fire alarm box system is a network of fire alarm boxes. The first box system was created in Boston in 1852 and is still used today. In Rutherford, they are both mechanical and digital throughout the Borough of Rutherford.
TIR: How does the fire box system work?
RK: The way the system works is simple. When a box is actuated, the box will transmit a series of signals to receiving equipment located at the Rutherford Police Department, Fire Alarm Office in Borough Hall and the three firehouses in town. Each box has a unique number and location. Lists of these box numbers and locations appear on the different pieces of receiving equipment. Inside Police Headquarters, the fire alarm office and the Ames Avenue firehouse communications room is an alarm monitoring receiver that translates the box number and displays the location of the alarm. In the each of the three firehouses is a punch register and alarm box board. The punch register looks like a ticker tape. When a box is transmitting, the punch register punches a hole in the register tape. The firefighter can then see the pattern and look on the box location board to determine where the box is located. So for example, if Box 124 was pulled, the tape would have a pattern that would look like this:
| * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * |
As you can see, the pattern is 1 2 4. You would then look at the board and see that Box 124 is Orient Way and East Pierrepont Avenue.
If you look inside of the box, you will see the workings similar to that of a grandfather clock with all different kinds of gears. There is power constantly running in the wires, keeping different parts of the box energized. When the box is activated, there is a specific gear that has a series of notches on it (called a code wheel) that begins to turn. Pushed against the side of the code wheel is a chock which pushes against an arm with an electronic contact. As the code wheel turns, the contact rides the side of the code wheel. When the contact reaches a valley in the notch, the contact falls in the valley of the notch and breaks the contact. This creates an open in the electrical circuit, briefly de-energizing parts of the box and receiving equipment, thus creating a tap on the box circuit. The contact then rides up the notch, restoring contact and closing the electrical circuit, restoring power to the boxes and receiving equipment. This happens in a pattern cut-out in the code wheel. The code wheel will do four complete turns (called rounds) and then stop.
TIR: When was the municipal fire alarm box system installed in town?
RK: The system was installed in Rutherford in the 1890's and has been serving the Borough for at least 125 years! Ten boxes were installed initially. By 1916, as the town's population grew, more boxes were installed, expanding the system to 24 boxes. By 1946, the system grew to 47 boxes. The system was made up of various style boxes, some not very compatible with each other. So in the late 1940s, the system was upgraded and made up of boxes from one company, called Gamewell. The system was eventually expanded to 59 boxes and stayed that way until 2000. There were two types of boxes during this time; Street Boxes and Master Boxes. They are the same with one exception. Master boxes had an additional part inside the box that would automatically trip the fire alarm box when a building's fire alarm was activated, as long as the box was tied to a building's fire alarm panel. This was the case for boxes located by a school.
Borough Historian Rod Leith explained, "In 1893, Walter M. Petty became superintendent of fire alarm telegraph for Rutherford. He appears to have remain in that position for the next twenty years or so. As of 1895, Water Petty was in charge of Rutherford's fire alarms. There were ten fire alarm "boxes and keys" throughout the borough in 1895. By 1928, there were 35 fire alarm signals. Albert Buys, electrician for the Borough, and Robert Leeds were responsible for the alarm signal installed at Union Avenue and Maple Street, which appears to be the first box."
In 2002, Rutherford nearly lost the alarm box system. The fire alarm superintendent was retiring and only 9 boxes out of 59 were working. The town was going to remove the system, until one firefighter stepped in and asked the Borough to reconsider. He asked to bring in a consultant to investigate why the boxes were not working and see how much it would cost to fix or update the system. The town agreed and a consultant from the Teaneck Fire Department Alarm Bureau came down to check it out. It was determined that a junction box on a telephone pole on Mortimer Avenue was mis-wired by an electrical contractor hired by the utility company to do a transfer of equipment from an old pole to a new pole. Once the wires were traced and properly wired, all but 5 fire alarm boxes were back on line. Once this information was relayed to the mayor and council, approval was given to continue to repair the system. Within a few days, all 59 boxes were back up and running.
Since that point in time, additional boxes were added to the firehouses and other Borough owned properties, bringing the total mechanical boxes to 71. Two fire alarm boxes were painted blue and are used to call for an ambulance. These boxes operate in the same way, except the equipment at Police headquarters will say "Medical Emergency" rather than "fire alarm" and give the box location. The two EMS boxes are located at the EMS building on Ames Avenue and by the Memorial Field Field house.
In addition, the system was expanded to include digital master boxes. These boxes are all computer boards with no moving parts. They operate the same as the mechanical boxes. Each digital box has the capability of transmitting 6 different box numbers, which is useful for places such as Felician University or the Meadows Office Complex. A mechanical Master Box would only transmit its box number for the entire building. A digital master box allows for flexibility for more specific information. For example, the Meadows Office Complex at 201 & 301 Rt 17 North has a digital master box. If 511 is transmitted, that tells us it is for 201 Rt 17 North. 512 is the Rainbow Academy at 201 Rt 17 North. Box 513 is 201 Rt 17 North, 7th Floor, etc. We know specifically where in the building or on campus the alarm of fire is located. There are over 70 digital master boxes in the network.
TIR: What is the purpose of the fire alarm box system?
RK: The primary purpose of the box system is to report a fire (however, you may pull the fire alarm to report other emergencies, such as a medical emergency, motor vehicle accident or even if you feel like you are being followed). Way back before every home had a phone, the only way to call the fire department was by way of these fire alarm boxes. Over the years, the telephone became more of a necessity and not a luxury. Soon every home had a telephone. The use of the fire alarm box had decreased since people would just call the fire department to report a fire. This, along with lack of proper maintenance of the systems infrastructure caused many towns to remove these systems. Then, 9-1-1 became the way to call for fires, medical emergencies, police aid, etc. Today, most people have a cell phone. You would think that since everyone has a cell phone, why are the boxes needed? The boxes are still needed because it is the only IMMEDIATE and DIRECT line to the fire department. Remember, there is receiving equipment inside the firehouses in addition to the Police Department. If the firefighters are in the firehouse for a meeting, conducting a drill or firematic activities, or even just hanging out, when a box is pulled, they will hear the bells ringing out the box number and can be out the door much faster than if someone telephones in a fire. When you call 9-1-1, you speak to an emergency operator at a Public Safety Answering Point. You may be speaking with a 9-1-1 operator in Paramus, Ridgewood, Hackensack, or at the NJ State Police Headquarters. They will take your info and then transfer your call to Rutherford.
If you call Rutherford PD, you have to navigate through a menu to get to the dispatcher. Then you have to give all of the information. How much time is wasted there? A fire doubles in size every minute. I am a firm believer that if you live near a fire alarm box, use it and follow it up with a phone call with the additional information.
In Rutherford, a Police Officer is dispatched to every fire call that the Fire Department receives. The Police Officer will likely arrive first and can radio his dispatcher the location of the fire given by the person who pulled the box. This information can be relayed to the fire department as members of the fire department are already responding to the firehouse or rolling out of the firehouse.
Cell phones signals can be problematic. A few years ago, there was a fire at 525 Union Avenue. A two story garden style apartment building with 4 families. A couch was on fire in one unit. The tenant tried getting the couch out of the apartment, but got stuck at the front door. Eventually, the fire took over the front entrances to the four apartments, trapping the occupants, especially those on the second floor. A 9-1-1 call came in reporting a fire, but the caller's signal cut out. It was reported as 25 Union Avenue and it was not clear whether it was East Rutherford or Rutherford. The Rutherford FD was dispatched there, along with East Rutherford since they also have a Union Avenue. Both departments had nothing showing at either location, until another call reported the correct address of the fire (525 Union Avenue).
Even landlines can be a problem. Fire Departments tell people to get out of the house and call from a neighbor's house if your house is on fire. I can recall a house a few years ago where the homeowner called from inside his burning home and was disconnected from 9-1-1. They thought 9-1-1 hung up on them. 9-1-1 didn't. The fire burned through the phone wire.
Rutherford had an issue with the town's phone system this year where most, if not all, of the phones did not work. How would you report an emergency?
Some buildings have fire alarm systems. When a building's fire alarm is activated, the alarm panel dials into the monitoring station and sends a fire alarm signal. The operator at the monitoring company has to then call the fire department for the municipality in which the alarm is located. These monitoring companies can have 1 monitoring location or multiple locations. ADT has 6 monitoring locations in the USA. Alarm monitoring companies may delay reporting an alarm up to 15 minutes before they incur any legal issues. Why so long? If a storm hits a particular area, multiple alarms of multiple types (burglar, fire, medical, etc) may be coming in high volume and these monitoring stations may be overwhelmed.
In this day and age, fires are burning much hotter and faster than years ago because of all of the synthetic material in our furniture and siding on our homes. Vinyl siding has zero fire protection, compared to aluminum siding and brick face structures. Under extreme heat from fire, vinyl siding will melt and expose flammable insulation underneath, spreading the fire rapidly. The faster you can get the FD to respond, the less property damage and the likelihood of survival.
TIR: Where are the fire boxes located throughout town?
RK: We used to distribute the locations of the alarm boxes on the reverse side of the Fund Drive letters. The boxes are typically located 2-3 intersections away from each other. Boxes that start with 1 are located East of Park Avenue. Boxes that start with 2 are located West of Park Avenue and South of Union Avenue. Boxes that start with 3 are located North of Union Avenue. Boxes that start with 4 are located along Park Avenue. Boxes with 5 are located in the Industrial area. Boxes that start with 6 are master boxes and can be anywhere in town. Boxes starting with 7 are at Felician University. Boxes starting with 8 are the Master Boxes for the Schools in town.
TIR: How often do you believe the fire box system is utilized?
RK: With the digital master boxes in the system, it is utilized very often, almost daily. As a matter of fact, a fire alarm at the Milton Court Dormitories came in via the box system just yesterday. It has been a while since the mechanical box on the telephone poles were pulled for a fire. The last time it was pulled for a fire was for a pile of leaves burning in a basement window well at Pierrepont School. A man was walking his dog past the school one evening, saw the fire and pulled the box. He did not have a cell phone with him. The fire box was the only notification of the fire. No one telephoned it in. The fire did not get inside the building, so the building's fire alarm did not sound. Had he not seen the fire, it could have made its way inside the school and done significant damage. Once in a while, someone will pull the box maliciously. Perpetrators get caught for the most part, so the occurrence of false alarms are minimal.
Nationally, the most widely known serious emergency during which these boxes proved their value was the famous earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay area in October 1989 just as the World Series was starting. The earthquake crippled the electric and phone utilities. The only way to notify the fire department was by way of the fire alarm boxes. Numerous fires were reported by this system for weeks after the quake. When the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred, the cell towers were overloaded that many, many people could not get through to make calls. The fire alarm boxes in NYC were utilized to report fires. Currently, with the wildfires burning in California, the electric utility is shutting down power in the area so that the infrastructure, if it becomes involved in fire, will not fall to the ground and start arcing, creating more fires. How will people report an emergency, especially if their cell phone dies? Now I do not know any towns in CA with an active fire alarm box system, except San Francisco. So what do these people do to report an emergency?