What's that thing in City Hall? Old WNY alarm system may be one of few remaining in country
by : Christine Nardone Reporter staff writer
Dec 01, 2000 | 679 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Before telephones and computers helped firemen track down emergency calls, they counted bells and read coded tickertape. Such a system may seem antiquated, but the West New York Fire Department was still using it into the 1980s.

"This was really a very simple system that was very easy to maintain," said Bob Dorsey, the electrician who used to service the old Gamewell Repeater System that was replaced by the telephone system that is used today.

The elaborate machine now sits on the second floor of West New York Town Hall, where it was installed in the mid 1930s with an underground wiring system. The system was abandoned entirely in 1985.

"It was a big operation at one time," said Dorsey, explaining how most of the second floor in Town Hall was devoted to this system. "It took a lot of space."

Bob Aiello, who was the town's fire chief from 1980 to 1985 and was with the regional Communications System since 1981, said the repeater is probably one of three left in the country. "That machine is probably a collector's item throughout the country," Aiello said.

Aiello added that the repeater will probably be placed in the West New York Fire Department Museum on Polk Street when the museum is completed.

"I don't think that I would like to see it leave West New York," Aiello said.

Bulbs lit up

Dorsey explained last week how the machine worked.

The repeater received its signals from pull boxes on the street corners. Once the lever in one of the boxes was pulled, a signal would be sent to the main repeater in Town Hall.

Bulbs on the top of the main switchboard would light up, indicating which circuit the call was coming from.

West New York was separated into seven circuits, the main circuit being Town Hall, and the rest being the areas surrounding each of the six firehouses.

Each alarm box had a number, so the repeater would send a signal first with the circuit number and then with the box number.

"If the alarm was pulled on 60th and Bergenline," said Dorsey, "the repeater would send the box number to each fire house."

The signal would repeat five times, and every fire company would receive the signal.

The box number would be punched out onto a piece of tickertape in each firehouse. The captain would see the tape and know where the call was coming from.

"More experienced firefighters never had to look at the tape," said Dorsey. "They would be able to tell the box number by listening to the bells."

Bells also would ring the code, and repeat it to all other firehouses.

"Once the bell would sound, the firefighters would start counting the ringing of the bell," said Aiello. "Then they would check the tape for backup."

If the pull box number was 227, the bells would ring twice, then pause, then ring twice, then pause, then ring seven times.

"Your heart pounded like you wouldn't believe," said Aiello about hearing the loud ringing that repeated the signals. "You were out of that bed in a heartbeat."

The system was also backed-up by a dispatcher who would also call out the firebox number if the captain missed a signal.

The system also controlled the air raid sirens; each school as well as Town Hall had sirens.

These sirens were disconnected in the mid 1980s and now work internally and are controlled from the police desk.

Searching the area

However, with the Gamewell system, unless someone called in the fire after pulling the alarm, the firemen had no way of telling the exact address of the fire - only the location of the box that was pulled.

"We did not have a box on every corner," said Scott. "Then the fire engines were travelling to a general area. We didn't have the exact address."

"We would go to the location and hopefully someone would be there, or we would see smoke or we would have to investigate the area," said Aiello.

"Usually, the person who pulled the alarm stayed there or we could see it," said Aiello.

If an investigation led the firemen to believe that there wasn't a fire, they declared the call a false alarm. According to Dorsey, the firemen experienced a substantial amount of false alarms with this system.

"Unless it was 3 a.m., somebody always saw someone hanging around by the call boxes," said Dorsey.

There used to be substances on the pull boxes that wouldn't wash off once they were on a person's hands. Then police would come with a black light to check peoples' hands for the substance.

"When we switched over to telephone system, it actually eliminated a lot of false alarms," said Dorsey.

Up to date

There was no doubt that the Gamewell system was a lot slower than the telephone system in place today.

"It was slower that someone calling directly to the regional office," said Dorsey.

"There is probably a multitude of reasons that makes this system faster," said Scott.

However, now having the exact location of the fire is probably the biggest time-saver that has come from the telephone system.

Telephone boxes that fed into the repeater originally replaced the pull boxes. However, by 1985, the alarm boxes on the street corners were eliminated altogether.

How it works today

Today's system of relaying emergencies through 911 is much faster than the old way, officials say.

"If a citizen is requesting assistance," said the executive director of the North Hudson Regional Communications Center, Andrew Scott, last week, "the call would come in one of two ways."

A 911 call is answered in the Public Safety Answering Point, which is located at the Hudson County Police building on Newark Avenue in Jersey City. From there, the call is transferred to the North Hudson Regional Communications Center on 49th and Broadway in West New York.

"Mostly everything now is 911," said West New York Fire Official Ed Wengerter.

A screen containing the caller's name, address and the phone number he is calling from is also transferred by computer to the center with the call.

The other way a call can come through is with a direct telephone call. These calls then go directly to the communication center.

At the center, the computer recommends the closest Fire Company to respond to the call.

The type of call determines how many engines respond to the call. A report of a fire requires four engines, two trucks a battalion chief and a deputy chief.

"That is a minimum of 21 people," said Scott, explaining that other calls for service require fewer men.

The calls are announced on the public address system to all fire companies. The North Hudson Regional Communications Center dispatches to West New York, Union City, North Bergen, Weehawken and Guttenberg.

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