Caper of the Flame: A Tale of Cincinnati’s Long-Gone Fire Alarm Boxes

My only experience with a Cincinnati fire alarm box, and I didn’t get in trouble.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In case of fire, break glass. In case of fire, call 911. In case of fire some decades ago, run down the street, open the little box, pull the lever, and wait for a fire engine. That’s what I did, minus the running down the street; the box was right outside my front door.

For years, Cincinnati Fire Department Alarm Box No. 4189 had seductively beckoned me from its pole at the curb, calling out to my inner 9-year-old. Open my cute little door and pull my lever, it teased. You can’t wait to hear that big fire engine coming, sang its literal siren song. But no, I had become a responsible adult, a fine citizen, a parent. When the moment arose for me to actually pull the lever, there was a real emergency happening, yet I still felt my inner 9-year-old jumping and yelling, Woo hoo! Finally!

Cincinnati’s fire alarm boxes are gone now, replaced by the 911 system. They stood silently on duty for more than a century and saved countless lives. Let us honor them, even as we smirk at their crudeness.

Like typewriters, slide rules, and eight-track tapes, fireboxes are near extinction. A few cities still use them as a backup, but not Cincinnati. We fired our fireboxes, almost 2,000 of them, auctioning them off in 1990. Besides being outdated, they had become the source for 95 percent of false alarms, including an embarrassing percentage triggered by people who thought they were mailing a letter.

When I activated Box 4189, it was no false alarm. I truly feared a fire at any moment, maybe even an explosion. At the intersection a few feet away were the remains of two cars that had just collided—smoldering, with fluids rapidly spilling out underneath and at least one engine still running. Lots of smoke. Lots of people gathered.

Viewing the dangerous scene, I decided to summon a fire engine. Mobile phones weren’t common yet, so the firebox made more sense than running back into the house for the landline. The firefighters arrived and, in their chemical way, drove a stake through the hearts of the already-totaled vehicles. Crisis averted. Both drivers were dazed, but unhurt.

For perhaps the first time but definitely the last, Box 4189 was a hero. It disappeared not long afterward. I want you to know its proud story, along with its 1,928 siblings who once protected Cincinnati. Therefore I shall momentarily set aside the rest of my anecdote about a crash and two dazed drivers, even though one of them was my wife.

The good old days rarely look very good under close inspection. For example, community fire alarms sucked. Cincinnati’s first version consisted of just a guy on a downtown roof pounding on a huge drum. The city’s several volunteer fire brigades would interpret the noise thusly: Attention! There’s a fire somewhere! Grab your leather buckets and try to find it! If another brigade gets there first, get into a big fistfight with them while the fire grows!

Cincinnati can pride itself on addressing this insanity with the creation of America’s first professionally-paid fire department, in 1853. A decade later came the newly-invented “telegraphic fire alarm,” which bumped the big drum into retirement. You can see it today at the Cincinnati Fire Museum downtown. Take the kids there; the museum is an underappreciated local treasure.

The original telegraph alarm was only slightly less insane than the drum. Here’s how it worked: Somebody would discover (or accidentally start) a fire. They would then run to the nearest firebox, and…oh, wait, that isn’t right. The boxes were locked. A “responsible” citizen entrusted with a key had to be located, and fast. Telephones didn’t exist, so imagine those few minutes.

Upon being found, Mr. Responsible had to run to the nearest firebox, unlock it, and turn a crank—but not too fast or the signal would be corrupted—exactly 25 times. Assuming the mechanical and electric innards functioned properly at both ends, a central office would identify the cranked box, and only then could a brigade race to it. Well, maybe. Sometimes the signal got garbled and sent firemen to the wrong box.

Things eventually got better. The next generation of Cincinnati fireboxes were unlocked, with reliable electrical infrastructure and a single-pull lever replacing the clumsy crank. Firefighting was now more efficient and life-saving, although there was no escaping the side effect of more false alarms. Fire departments everywhere have tried everything to suppress them. A bell would clang obnoxiously when an alarm was triggered. Or a dye got squirted onto your hands. Or a line of buttons required four simultaneous presses, grabbing your fingerprints. Somebody even invented a firebox with a handcuff that clamped over your wrist, trapping you until the fire team arrived (unless you’d chewed your hand off first).

I don’t remember my personal firebox’s reaction when I pulled its lever, but it definitely did not squirt or handcuff me. I only know that it worked. Box 4189 magically summoned Engine 46, which promptly arrived and ended the crisis that had begun with me and the kids hearing the ugly crash outside of our house. The intersection along Madison Road was notorious for fender-benders, so it wasn’t the first time a noise had sent us to the door to look out at the scene. It was, however, the first time my daughter would say, “Isn’t that Mom’s car?”

Carolyn had been hit on the passenger side, so she was able to open her door and unsteadily get out. The other car had crumpled in front; its young driver expended a little more effort getting his door open. After his parents arrived, their first reaction was relief that their son was OK; their second reaction, upon seeing the hulk of metal they’d only recently paid to have restored after the son’s previous collision, were words that this magazine reserves for more profound situations. The bottom line is that we were all lucky. Both cars were toast, but everyone was fine and the firefighters had squelched any remaining danger. And me, I had crossed an item off my bucket list I hadn’t even realized was on it.

Carolyn and I experienced another fire emergency a few years earlier, when the kids were small and we were renting the top floor of a house. Lint had ignited in the basement tenant’s dryer, spreading to the clothing and pushing smoke up through the ducts straight to us. We grabbed the kids and got the hell out; the pros quickly arrived and extinguished the fire. As emergencies go, this one was almost forgettable, except for one detail that has always stayed with me: The time lapse between I think I smell something and I can hardly see was maybe two minutes. Things can turn lethal very quickly. Clean those lint filters, people. And go downtown to see that giant drum. Thank every person who ever stood watch with it, and thank the inventors of every fire alarm network since then.

Greater Cincinnati is currently observing the 45th anniversary of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the worst local tragedy of our lifetime. The heartbreaking number of casualties from that awful night would have been even higher had it not been for community alarm systems that summoned the first responders. Fires are a lottery handing out tickets nobody wants, but if your number comes up there are strangers who have spent their lives developing ways to deliver help to you as fast as possible. Even you, that damn kid who broadsided my wife.

Cincinnati’s fireboxes are gone. What remains are countless lives that are not gone, thanks to people whose inner 9-year-olds blossomed into inventors and engineers creating our fire alarm networks. They rarely get the recognition that firefighters and EMTs get. Join me in saluting them.

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