Again, the Goals of Back Taps is to promote the telegraph systems and provide history that fire departments forget to include on their websites. While surfing the site, you may feel that this site is against calling 9-1-1 for emergencies. Please note that is not the case. By all means, you should call 9-1-1 for emergencies. What Back Taps does dispute is the belief that the telegraph fire alarm boxes should be removed because it is considered "antiquated", "obsolete", "outlived its usefulness", "should be removed due to all the false alarms" or "because of the cell phone." All of these excuses are lame.
Think about this for a moment. There have been three large scale incidents where the telegraph fire alarm boxes proved its usefulness. First, the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. The earthquake did extensive damage to buildings, highways and communication and power. Phone lines were lost. However, the telegraph fire alarm system was operating during the earthquake and after. Second, on September 11, 2001, the cellular phone circuits were overloaded with numerous phone calls. It was very difficult to get make a phone call that day, if you were lucky enough at all to get through. The third large scale event was the blackout in the Northeast on August 14, 2003. In New York City, 9-1-1 failed! The FDNY computer dispatch failed. Cell phones failed. But, the telegraph fire alarm boxes worked!
Now, in major situations such as the three above, "modern technology" failed. The "antiquated, obsolete" systems operated. I guess they are right when they say "they don't make things like they used to."
Granted, the telegraph boxes were invented and used extensively because everyone did not have a telephone. Soon, the telephone appeared in homes all across the world and it appeared that the telegraph boxes were not needed anymore. That is not the case. Fire Departments all say the same thing. If there is a fire in your house, get everyone out and call the fire department from your neighbor's house. Suppose its 2 a.m. and you wake up to a fire in your house. You get everyone out and go next door to your neighbor's house. You are banging on his door and ringing their doorbell. Think about what is going on in their mind. First off, you are waking them up and probably scaring them. After they get up and put on a robe, they will probably have a weapon with them, especially in these times of push-in burglaries. By the time they see who it is and open the door, precious time has already been lost and the fire is rapidly spreading. During that same time frame, you could have ran to a fire alarm box and pulled it and the fire department would be on their way.
"The boxes are obsolete" is incorrect. The boxes advanced with the times and were outfitted to tie into a building's fire alarm panel and transmit the box when the fire alarm panel received an activation. When the fire alarm activates, a signal is sent to the telegraph box that sends power to a coil which activates the box. Immediately, the box signal is sent to the fire dispatcher. This is called a master box. Shortly thereafter, the fire department is dispatched. Meanwhile, the alarm panel has to dial into the monitoring station's server and transmit the information to the monitoring station. The alarm tech at the other end receives this information and then has to call the fire dispatcher and provide him with the location of the incident. But, the telegraph box already did that. Now, the alarm monitoring station can give more precise information such as "2nd floor hallway smoke detector." When fire departments arrive on the scene of a building with a fire alarm panel, they check the panel or an annunciator panel to see where the activation is located. But at least the FD will be dispatched quicker to the address with the telegraph box hooked up as a master box.
Also, the receiving equipment has been improved, condensed and computerized. Form Fours, which provides the power to the telegraph system (Form Four is actually the product name from Digitize Inc) have gone from large machines that take up a half of room just from one unit to smaller models about the size of a desktop computer. The machine that reads out the information at the dispatch center, such as a Digitize System 3500, can be field programmed to add additional boxes or additional information for a particular box, such as running assignments for the dispatcher to dispatch the appropriate companies.
Well, it sounds like these systems also rely on modern technology. What happens when there is a power outage? How will you receive the calls form the boxes? Each telegraph system is required by law to have a battery backup to last at least 24 hours. So, when the power goes out, the batteries provide the power to the boxes. The read out at the dispatch center will not work, unless of course the dispatch center is on a back up generator. However, the dispatcher will then rely on the old box alarm cards and the punch register, which will punch out the box number. And, if the paging system fails, the outdoor warning system will still sound in time with the taps on the punch tape, as long as the horns are still hooked up to the telegraph system.
What happens if a wire breaks? Will the boxes not work? Good question. The answer is typically the boxes will still work. When there is an interruption due to a broken wire, after 90 seconds will automatically go to ground return. What this means is that the circuit will continue to provide power up to the point where the break is and complete the circuit utilizing the earth ground. Now, the box up to the break will work. Those past the break will not work unless the fire alarm technician does a neat little trick. All they need to do is go to the box next to the break on both sides, enter a shunt key a certain way in each box and reset the circuit in headquarters. Now, the circuit is complete and all boxes on the circuit are in service. This allows the boxes to be in service until they can make the necessary repair to the wires. Sounds technical. It is somewhat but is pretty interesting to see it work and is a fail-safe technique.
The fact is people rely too much on modern technology. Cell phones are not the be-all-end-all. Funny thing is that 99% of the people who have cell phones still have their land line in their house. Why? If you have your cell phone with you all the time, why would you need a land line? Most common answers given are "my battery dies", "limited cell service", and "dropped calls" and "its a good backup."
In all the telegraph fire alarm box system is simple to use and extremely reliable! It is the most direct route to the fire dispatcher without actually walking into the dispatch office to report the emergency. It has proven its worth in the most critical of times in our nation's history! So why get rid of these systems if they are the most reliable and most dependable system for reporting a fire or other emergency?