The red fire alarm relics on New York streets

They used to sit on so many city street corners, these red cylinder-like posts with an inside compartment for calling the fire department. In a pre-iPhone era, this was how New Yorkers let the FDNY know they were needed to put out a fire.

Over the years, the style has changed—but I’m specifically talking about these torch-topped beauties, more pale pink in color, with early 20th century ornamentation on what’s basically a piece of street furniture.

I’m not sure how many are still on city curbs. I spotted this one at First Avenue and 58th Street, and it felt like a relic from another era, defaced with stickers and graffiti.

As of a few years ago, approximately 15,000 street fire alarms of all kinds remained on city streets, reported Crain’s New York Business in 2017.

“The boxes were used 11,440 times to call the Fire Department last year,” wrote Crain’s. “That is less than once per box, on average.”

“Only 13% of those calls were for actual emergencies, and less than 1.5%, or 167, were about fires, including just 10 for serious structural fires.”

No surprise, the city would like to get rid of them—and both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations failed to do so, after an organization that advocated for the deaf sued the city to keep the alarms.

They won’t last forever, felled by either city administrators or new construction.

Take a moment to admire their artistry, and that these once-ubiquitous artifacts served a noble purpose.

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7 Responses to “The red fire alarm relics on New York streets”

  1. The red fire alarm relics on New York streets | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

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  3. Bob Says:

    This means 87% (!) of the calls were false alarms that diverted firefighters from real emergencies, on top of the annual waste by the City of $7 million to paint and repair these boxes.

  4. Andrew Porter Says:

    They used to be bright red—”fire engine red”—but the sunlight has bleached them to the current pink. The fact is they do NOT get painted, hence their current state of dilapidation.

  5. David H Lippman Says:

    There’s a survivor in the New York Transit Museum, along with other street furniture, as part of their buses and trolleys exhibit.

  6. Alana Akacki Says:

    There is also another survivor in the New York State Museum in Albany (ca. 1900). It seems like Boston and D.C. have taken better care of their still-standing fire alarm boxes and lamp posts.

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