This story idea came to the Curiosity Desk from listener Allison Staton and her 11-year old daughter, who live near the main fire station in Dedham, MA. For years, they've been hearing the station's loud, alarm-whistle occasionally blast, but recently noticed something curious: no two blasts seem to sound the same. It struck them that these whistle blasts might contain a message in them.
You know they’d blare three horns, and then there’d be a pause, and then there’d be two horns. I’m not quite sure of the number, but there was a definite pattern and [my daughter] was like, 'that would be a good question to ask that guy on the radio.'
Attached to the fire station on Washington street in Dedham is a meticulously painted, bright red box, with a little roof and a gleaming white lever. You’ve seen something like this before. Maybe on the side of an apartment building or a school. Perhaps atop a pedestal on a street corner. Or even a smaller version of it on a hallway wall where you work.
What you've likely not seen, however, is what is inside these venerable New England staples. A simple, mechanical, 19th century technology that is still critical for firefighters in Dedham, Boston and hundreds of other New England cities and towns in the 21st century.
At the station, Dedham Fire Alarm Superintendent John Howard keys open the fire box attached to the station. "You see that wheel right there," he asked, pointing to a something looking very much like the inside of an old clock. "If you look at it close enough you see one, one-two-three-four, and then one," he said, pointing to the tabs on a metal wheel. "Every box has a different code wheel."
That code wheel reflects each box's unique number. The one at the station is box 141. Like 250 others like it all across Dedham, it's connected by copper wire to the police dispatch center. It’s part of – literally – a telegraph system. When the lever on the box is pulled, the gear box churns, and taps the box number down the wire.
That number sequence is received almost instantaneously at the dispatch center, and automatically rings the box number on a bell inside the fire station.
A digitizer at dispatch also brings up the box number and its location up on a screen. If serious action needs to be taken, the dispatcher then blasts the fire whistle on the outside of the fire station with the punch of a few keys.
This is what Alison and her daughter are hearing. And it is all in code. A 1-3 followed by a box number means there’s an active fire at or near that box. An 8-2 means Dedham’s been called in to help another town. In the old days, that coded alarm whistle was the only way to contact firefighters en masse. Today, it’s just one of many, though not one without it’s value, says Howard.
"If guys hears the whistles at, like, two in the morning, they know to pick up the phone and find out what’s going on," he said.
Now if this all sounds a little antiquated in an age of two-way radios, 911, and cell phones, Dedham Deputy Fire Chief John Fontaine points out that there are still a number of unique advantages to this system. Self-powered and hard-wired, it works even if the electricity goes out or cell service goes down. And, it’s fast.
"It’s quicker than even if you had a cell phone," he said. "Your cell phone, that’s going to State Police dispatch who’s either taking the information or now they’re transferring the call to the proper town. [Then] they’re taking the information, and then they’ve gotta notify us."
Where it really shines, says Fontaine, is in large office buildings, hotels, and apartment complexes, where smoke detectors and sprinklers are also wired in, and trip the box when they go off. Many of those buildings are also monitored by private security companies. But when it comes to fighting fires, minutes – even seconds - count. And Howard and Fontaine say this old-fashioned telegraph system regularly beats those companies to the punch.
"We’re already on our way at our point by the time we get notified from an alarm company that there’s a problem at the building," they said.
Yes, there are false pulls. Sure, 911 is used way more often these days. Still, hundreds of New England cities and towns still use some version of this system. Boston’s is essentially identical, but with a couple thousand boxes instead of a couple hundred. In Lowell, they moved from hard-wired to wireless radio boxes 5 years ago. Each town has their own codes, and not all of them still blast them out from the fire stations. But here’s a tip for Alison’s daughter and her friends in Dedham where they still do. There’s one fire alarm code you might want to commit to memory: 2-2-2-2.
"Believe it or not we still do the 'no school,' whether the people out there know it or not," said Howard. "They call us early in the morning if they’re going to cancel school and [we] set off the 2-2-2-2."
And given how loud that whistle is, Allison's daughter will surely be wide awake, and ready to take full advantage of the day off.