The city’s disappearing sidewalk fire alarms

These handsome pieces of street furniture—check out the Art Nouveau decorative touches as well as the torch on top—must have saved many lives in the pre-911 landline era.

Now they’re relics of a non-digital New York, one where all a resident had to do to report a fire was pull a tab or door, and a signal would be sent indicating the alarm’s location.

In the 1970s, some of these turn of the century alarms were fitted with fire and police tabs allowing for voice communication with a dispatcher.

In 1994, the Giuliani administration tried to disconnect them, arguing that 911 displaced the alarms. But critics insisted that deaf New Yorkers would have no way to report a blaze.

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg also suggested deactivating these mechanical alarms in favor of relying on cell phones and 911.

And before long, a once-ubiquitous sight on city sidewalks will become harder and harder to find. [Top: Seventh Avenue and 14th Street; right: Ninth Avenue and 26th Street]

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8 Responses to “The city’s disappearing sidewalk fire alarms”

  1. Manh Yipster Says:

    What I find so interesting is how these do not even register in many people’s minds today, they’re just another piece of the cluttered landscape. I tried mentioning the boxes to people and they gave me blank stares. I walked about 50 feet and touched one, and they were like ‘oh! what’s that’ – lol. So I agree, in today’s world they aren’t very effective…

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Good point. I wonder if they don’t register because there seems to be more sidewalk clutter these days. I see newspapers boxes lined up on corner after corner…along with the fire alarms, mailboxes, etc. Who reads all those freebie papers?

  3. Kay Lockridge Says:

    What’s the Mayor’s excuse….the budget? I hope not, because he knows that lives outweigh the bottom line; at least, I hope he does. I remember walking by the one at Seventh and 14th almost daily for 24 years when I lived at 7 East 14th St. (1973-97). I never had to use the alarm, fortunately, but I was happy to see it there–both for safety’s sake and for the history it embodies.

  4. Sidewalk Fire Alarms Disappear From City Streets Says:

    […] in a world where people can just dial 911 from their cell phones to report a fire? Read more at Ephemeral New York. Related Posts:NYC Restaurant Week Kicks OffApple Store Almost Approved For Grand Central […]

  5. nygrump Says:

    I don’t carry a cell phone and I am offended that I need to carry a registered govt tracking device at all times in order to report an emergency. I remember when when the State wanted to remove the fire boxes because there were enough payphones everywhere they said.

  6. rbkhubbard Says:

    Hi, I found your blog today researching branding of buildings. Just wanted to say that it’s pretty cool! Keep up the good work.

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you!

  8. Wolff Says:

    I own one of these torch top cast-iron boxes, they weigh about 750# quite amazing works of art. Mine has “Property of the city of New York 1929” on the base. They were installed when Valentine Fendrich was the chief engineer of the telegraph, FDNY in the 20s, so they are called “VF” posts after him.
    Some erroneously use the name “Victor Fine” for the initials but to my knowlege there was no such person in the dept, searches for it have turned up nothing and I don’t know where they got that name from.

    The “HP TEL” on the back of the box in the first photo indicated it was in a location where high pressure fire hydrants were available.

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