SYRACUSE’S MODERN FIRE ALARM SYSTEM 

My first significant public administration accomplishment was the first U.S. installation of a completely telephone operated fire alarm system for the City of Syracuse. In 1954 I was Deputy Director of the City’s Bureau of Municipal Research. Aliceann held the same position 10 years later.. Laurence J. O'Toole a former newspaper reporter and later a close friend was the Director.

The old telegraph system consisted of a post on the corner with a red manually operated alarm box. With a tiny hammer the glass was broken and when the lever was pulled the box number was telegraphed to City Hall central station and to all 20 Fire Stations. . If the box was 23 for example it would telegraph on a paper ticker two a pause and then three holes.. Each station had a man standing by to determine the Company was to respond to that box location. There were enormous disadvantages. First off and could only handle fire related emergencies and the box location did not tell the location of the fire. All of the apparatus had to respond to the box not to the fire. One of the worst problems was the temptation for mischief where people would pull the lever and create a great number of very expensive false alarms. Actually the system totally collapsed during Hurricane Hazel which was remarkable for coming so far north and inland with such ferocity. .

While in the Army I had seen on telephone poles small round mental boxes connected by phone to a central dispatch agency. I got in contact with Paul Combs Deputy Fire Chief and a Paul Johnson representative from the New York Bell telephone system and we began a two-year effort to create a telephone alarm system. Chief Combs was remarkable in his encyclopedic understanding of the fire service. Together we spent thousands of hours night and day working out every detail. We faced bitter opposition from Game Well Company which marketed the old system. For example they had a stable of retired chiefs of fire departments who warned that the present system was the best and that the new system would cause loss of life and increase of fire insurance premiums. We also faced bitter resentment from the often partially disabled fireman who would lose their relatively cushy jobs operating the telegraph system. . They protested that the rules of the Civil Service Commission protected their jobs. We discovered that another community in Florida was experimenting with the telephone system. We approach Fire Chief Tom Connolly and urged him to go to Florida (where he had a daughter) and review their approach. He came back as our critical supporter...

We successfully installed a modern telephone alarm system that could report emergencies by voice to central dispatch. The appropriate fire, police, ambulance and other responders were then dispatched to exact locations... False alarms were almost entirely eliminated. In effect we installed at street level the preview of today’s Telephone 911 System.

This was very rewarding particularly since I formed such a strong bond with Paul Combs. We champion many other progressive ideas. As an example Paul’s idea to smother of fire by making only a small opening in the window glass and spraying it with water soaked with detergent to cut the oxygen and choke off the flames. This idea is now these many years later being experimented with by other fire departments which are notably super conservative. The obsolete technique is to smash out the windows to ventilate the fire and squirt the resulting flames. A 3 inch fire hose at full blast will blow out walls and destroy everything in its path.
It was a heartbreaker when two years after I left to come to Washington Chief Combs passed away. This system has saved many lives and most of the credit goes to my dedicated friend.

There were other great friends. Mayor Thomas Corcoran, who hired me, was the first Democratic Mayor in usually Republican Syracuse. He had a broad education in a most unusual way. He had a small printing company and a contracted with Syracuse University to print professional papers. He had developed the skill of absorbing the content while his fingers mechanically set type. He became my great friend after an embarrassing job interview. At the meeting with him and Council President Alfred Haige there was an accident. As I accepted the invitation to sit down my pants ripped open and my very white knee popped out. With this humorous start the Mayor shared a story. He told me the man that I passed outside his office was his 90 year old father. He was born in Ireland and came to America by indenture. He had applied for a job at the construction of this City Hall and was turned down because at that time there was strong Anti-Irish prejudice. In one generation his son was elected mayor. He said this is the American story. He traced Syracuse immigration he marked by changing names of city streets and parks. First to come were the Germans who sponsored Schiller Park. They were followed by Italians, Irish Polish and others. He predicted that the next group would be African American. He was correct. He could not however have anticipated the newest arrivals. They are Vietnamese refugees. Butternut Street home in my youth was almost totally Italian as were my playmates in school and church. That street is now referred to as Ho CHI Min Trail.

At the meeting it was decided that in view of the fact that my annual salary in my previous Wisconsin position was $ 4,900 my new Deputy Director position should show a salary step up for a native Syracusan. They added an extra $100.

Bernard F Hillenbrand

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