: views from the Hill

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Alarming debate - Audit: No use for street fire alarm boxes

Alarming debate is an article by JK Dineen in the Examiner re a proposal to close out the street fire alarm boxes.


[City Controller Ed] Harrington argues that fire alarm boxes generate thousands of false alarms every year. Of the more than 22,000 calls coming in from street boxes, 87 percent are false alarms, according to Harrington. Furthermore, of the 15 percent of calls that are legitimate, 80 percent are medical, meaning only 3 percent are fires.

Um. Does Harrington realize he's saying that people use fire alarm boxes to report at least 660 "real" fire calls a year and that almost 2700 calls a year are medical emergencies, albeit not fires? Is there really a problem with people using fire alarm boxes to call in medical emergencies, if they have no other way to quickly contact emergency services and a life is saved?

San Francisco has 2,040 fire alarm boxes, with a concentration in densely populated neighborhoods. The boxes, maintained by 16 electricians from the Department of Telecommunications and Information Service, are part of a 300 mile copper network that also carries the mayor's emergency telephone system.

Defenders of the boxes argue that the copper-wire system is The City's most reliable form of emergency communication. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, phone service was out for 24 hours and fire alarm boxes were used to report dozens of blazes.

Sounds like a good enough reason in our earthquake-prone ville to keep the boxes, but wait, there's more ...

Jack Donahoe, who manages the system, said eliminating the fireboxes would not cut costs at the telecommunications department. He compared eliminating the alarm boxes to "unplugging" an appliance from an outlet where other appliances are also plugged in.

"We can tell you that there is not a direct correlation between shutting down the fire alarm and the cost of the operation," he said. "The cost would stay very nearly the same."

Telecommunications Director Denise Brady called the copper network, "an important asset for public safety." "We should be careful that we don't throw the baby out with the bath water," she said.

You heard it here. If the city takes out those "old-fashioned street boxes," we'll have an earthquake or some other catastrophe that swamps or takes out the landline/cell phone system and there will be a huge roar after the emergency is over as people search down the bureaucrats who decided on this "cost-saving" measure.

Penny-wise pound-foolish anyone?

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