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What’s The Story Behind San Francisco's Old Emergency Fireboxes? Do They Still Work?

Ariella Markowitz
Firebox in Embarcadero

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. One listener wanted to know, what’s the history behind the street fire alarm boxes around the city? Are they functioning today?

You’ve probably seen old emergency fireboxes around the city covered in stickers, graffiti, and broken glass. The crazy thing is that they still work! Installed in the 1860s, the fireboxes make it easy for first responders to get to fires and all sorts of emergencies. But some of the boxes are falling apart. Should we keep them around?

Take a walk around the financial district in San Francisco, and you’ll see an emergency firebox around every corner. They’ve been here since the 60s. As in, the 1860s.

But do they still work? Surprisingly, yes! There 2,300 boxes all around the city, and around 2,100 still work. 

Linda Gerull is the head of the Department of Technology. She’s in charge of all the boxes. She says that “No person is more than two blocks away from a box.”

Gerull says the boxes decrease the response time for first responders. That’s because when you pull firebox alarm, a telegraph signal goes straight to the nearest fire station. 

However, the 150-year-old telegraph technology is deteriorating. When the boxes break, they’re hard to fix. And the city spends about 2 million dollars a year on repairs.

“It is … a maintenance challenge,” Gerull admits. The city has to dig up the entire box to fix it.

During past emergencies, like the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the boxes were critical. But now, people just use cell phones. And less than five percent of the calls from the boxes are actual emergencies. 

But at the Fire Department, Assistant Deputy Chief Tony Riverra thinks the boxes serve a necessary function. He says that “if we had a hundred false alarms but one of the times we would be able to save someone’s life, it’d be absolutely worth it.”

Gerull says there’s plans to modernize the boxes. She mentions wireless cellular-based, instead of copper cables. Solar powered instead of electric power. “These systems are more likely to be available in an emergency.”

An official report from the Department of Technology is due in the Fall, which will include a budget for upgrades.

In the meanwhile, Tony Riverra has a request:

“If there was any way to keep the historical look of it but maybe upgrade the internal components that would be a win win for everyone.”