Phasing out 19th century technology

Photo by Ron Leir/ Fire Official Sam Infante (l.) and Fire Chief Joseph McCarthy check out the interior of a Gamewell alarm box at Montgomery and Williamson Sts.


By Ron Leir


An ancient and now impractical piece of township infrastructure is targeted for the dust bin of history.

The nearly 200 Gamewell telegraph fire alarm boxes scattered around Bloomfield that haven’t been used by the public for many years are slated for removal later this year.
It’s not that they don’t work – they do, insisted Fire Chief Joseph McCarthy and Fire Official Sam Infante.

That is, they explain, the alarm device functions and if a box alarm is tripped, it will transmit the box’s coded location to the firehouse. But the problem lies with the electrical circuitry and the difficulty of finding parts for a 19th century mechanism.
“We’re dealing with wiring that’s 120 years old,” Infante said.

He can tell you the exact date of the Gamewell system’s installation here: Nov. 29, 1890.

And, Infante continued, when there’s a disruption of the electrical service and the Fire Department wants to fix the wiring, “Verizon doesn’t want us working in their manholes without a permit so we have to spend time applying for a permit.”
Then there’s the matter of spare parts to replace 19th century technology. “It used to cost $400 to replace a box,” Infante said. “Now it’s probably four times that amount.”
The Gameway Co. was taken over by Honeywell, which doesn’t make parts for those boxes or the pedestals supporting the boxes anymore, Infante said. Instead, the company recycles whatever old parts it may still have in stock, he said.

The intricacies of the Gamewell alarm are outlined in, an Internet site which seeks to keep the memory of these telegraph alarm boxes alive. Here’s the explanation it gives for the box’s operation: “The fire boxes operate using telegraph lines. Rather than having short beeps and long beeps in a series to type out letters (as in Morse Code), a fire box ‘taps’ out the number … corresponding to a code wheel…. What happens is this: The entire wired fire alarm system circuit is normally a closed circuit, meaning that electricity flows through the system without any interruptions. When the box is activated, it causes a series of ‘opens’ or taps in the pattern of the box number.” The system relies on the operation of a spring-wound clockwork mechanism, code wheel and striker to create an open circuit that produces the “taps.”

“It’s one of the best and most reliable alarm systems – if it can be maintained,” Infante said. “It’s just that now there are no spare parts available if anything goes wrong.”
Right now, he said, with the Watchung Bridge down for repairs, the circuitry connecting alarm boxes at three township schools – Brookdale, Oakview and North Middle – has been disconnected, although the bridge job is expected to be completed by next month.

So, if there’s a fire at any of those locations, “they’ve got to call us,” Infante said.
Infante said the township Board of Education will be taking bids shortly for the installation of its own central alarm monitoring system.

Several private nursing homes and some day care facilities for children and adults have their own alarm systems while others still rely on nearby Gameway boxes for coverage, he said. Senior citizen buildings have the boxes, too.

“We won’t remove the box system until everyone comes on line with an alarm system,” Infante said.

Elsewhere in Essex County, Orange and Verona still have operating Gamewell boxes; eight communities in Bergen County, including Rutherford and Hackensack, continue to use them; there are none operating in Hudson County.

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