Telegraphs, Bells and Signals


Well-known member
Sep 25, 2013
Firefighting has always had an alarm component. From shouts, to rattles, to pistol shots, to church bells, to steam whistles, citizen firefighters needed to be alerted. The introduction of coded signals enabled locations to be signaled. The telegraph was invented in 1838 by Samuel Morse, followed by voice over telegraph (telephone) in 1876. Telegraph alarm boxes provided coded two-way communication from the fireground to the central office.

The fire service adapted telegraphy with a couple of clever operational features. Rather than transmit words via morse code, coded messages were transmitted via numbers. With prefix and suffix numbers, complex messages could be transmitted quickly and accurately.

Consider a typical, 4 digit box number. That easily transmitted number represented a physical location or address of an alarm box telegraph. With a prefix signal, that box number represented the Fire Departments operational response plan up to 5 alarm levels for that location.

For an example from the 1940s, Box 8186 – Beach Channel Drive & Beach 176th Street provided response instructions for 36 units and relocation assignments and destinations for 26 more. Transmitted individually, it would require 350 digits to be signaled equaling 1,626 bell strokes. Sent individually, all of those messages would take about 20 minutes to complete.

However, by providing fire houses with running cards, only the box number needed to be transmitted and the receiving firehouses could determine their instructions by following the appropriate pre-determined running card instructions.

Telephones were still becoming common household devices into the 1970s, public pay phones were everywhere, and wireless phones became personal individual phones in the 2000’s. Yet the 1838 invention of the telegraph provided accurate and reliable alarm transmission through the busy War Years of the 1970’s when alarms numbered in the hundreds of thousands and company movement signals numbered in the millions.


Active member
Jan 5, 2022
I enjoy hearing borough dispatchers today announcing the “5-7 signal” for a car fire or the “signal 7” for a stuck, occupied elevator. To some, it’s a vestige of a bygone time. But to me, it’s a sign of the historical progression of many decades of fire protection.