Pulling the fire alarm was a no-no

Published 5:34 pm Monday, August 30, 2021

This column seems to have sparked a lot of fond memories for some of those who grew up in Washington many, many decades ago. I am often asked the ”do you remember’ questions about things that happened here. For example, “do you remember when the schools would go to the Turnage Theater to see classic movies?” or, “did you ever hear the story about Leprechauns terrorizing some neighborhoods?”

Honestly, in the mid-sixties, this was a story/rumor that even some adults claimed to know about. Or, I’m asked, “what’s the one thing you were afraid to do as a child?”

For me, a very adventurous and inquisitive kid, I was my neighborhood’s queen of pranks, but one thing I dared not do was tamper with fire alarm boxes. They were red metal boxes that were securely fastened to utility poles in every neighborhood in Washington.  Tampering with them was at the top of my ‘don’t do it ‘ list and I was never tempted.

Some neighborhood kids would pull the lever on the boxes, setting the alarm off and run away when the boredom of summer evenings got to them. Then they would watch innocently as a fire truck sped to the neighborhood where the box was located.

When someone pulled the lever, it would signal the Fire Department to come to the neighborhood where the fire was.  Everybody in town knew where their neighborhood alarm box was located, and each one had a code number, which was listed in the phone book.

I grew up near Fourth and Van Norden Streets. The nearest box was Fifth and Van Norden and the number for that alarm box was 63.

Pulling on the handle of the box caused a spring loaded wheel to turn and tap out an electrical signal corresponding to the box number that was relayed to the fire department.  Then, the signal made a loud 6 and 3 blast done separately to let them know there was fire in my neighborhood, so the fire trucks would know where to go.  When the fire had been extinguished, a blast of two signals was made.

The boxes were also used to alert citizens of trouble. One blast denoted trouble of some kind. Three blasts meant an equipment test required by the Insurance Companies.

This fire alarm signal system was first used in 1916 and had 27 alarm boxes throughout Washington.  The Insurance Companies at that time designated requirements for the boxes. For example, for City residents, alarms had to be placed where they could be accessed quickly. The Chief of the Fire Department O. M Winfield stated “no resident should have to go more than 800 feet from any point to reach an alarm box.”

Before 1916, the striking of a hammer against a huge metal wheel that was attached to a large bell in the old City Hall where Rachel K’s is today was the fire alarm system.

It was used since 1855 when the bell was donated to the city by a Women’s Civic Group.   The loud metallic ring could be heard for quite a distance from what I was told.  During the Civil War, this system was used to denote danger when the signal of striking the metal wheel was sounded once.

Much gratitude and thanks for the awesome Fire Department we have now.