When the first fire companies were established in Hamden, residential telephones were extremely rare. Hamden did not have its own telephone exchange until the 19-teens.
In 1918, the Town of Hamden paid $327.51 to the Southern New England Telephone Co. for telephone service to the Humphrey, Whitneyville, Centerville and Highwood fire stations. Today, the telephone is considered an absolute necessity, like electricity and running water. But even as late as the 1950s not everyone in Hamden had a telephone.
The Gamewell Co. manufactured police and fire alarm communications equipment for municipalities. The company was originally headquartered in New York City and then in Newton, Massachusetts. For the 1918-19 fiscal year, the Town of Hamden allocated $11,000 for the installation of 22 Gamewell "signal boxes." Miles of new wire were donated by Acme Wire and the Whitney Blake Co.
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By 1928, there were over 50 Gamewell boxes throughout town. When fire emergencies occured, Hamden citizens with no immediate access to a telephone had the Gamewell fire alarm telegraph system to alert the fire department.
With the coming of 911 service in 1981, emergency calls could be placed without a coin on hundreds of payphones all over Hamden. And with the more recent advent of cellular phones, Gamewell's telegraph fire alarm notification system became more and more anachronistic. Finally, in early 1998, Hamden's Gamewell alarm system went the way of trolley car.
Gamewell municipal fire alarm systems are still utilized today, especially in the Boston area. Closer to home, they are also still in use in some of the towns in the Housatonic Valley.
Gamewell Boxes - 1937
By 1937, 80 Gamewell fire alarm boxes had been installed in Hamden. Some of the boxes remained at the same location until the end.
Gamewell Boxes - c. 1940
A "Hamden Fire Alarm Directory" was distributed annually by members of the Hamden Firemen's Benevolent Association to Hamden businesses and residents who provided financial support for the annual Thanksgiving Eve Firemen's Ball.
This particular directory was printed on red card stock (5 3/8" x 13") around 1940, when 98 Gamewell fire alarm boxes were in service. The fact that these cards were distributed to the public suggests that none of these boxes were "phantom" boxes.
The HFBA existed from 1932 until 1947 and was comprised of regular paid and substitute firemen, including the volunteer chief officers. It was succeeded in 1948 by the Hamden Paid Firemen's Sick Benefit Association, which later became the first bargaining unit for Hamden paid firefighters when collective bargaining for public safety employees became law in the 1960s.
(Hamden Fire Alarm Directory card courtesy of G. Donald Steele)
Gamewell Boxes - 1948
By the late-1940s, 116 Gamewell fire alarm boxes were listed. Several Hamden fire boxes were also located in North Haven because Hamden was still covering in on many North Haven streets west of Ridge Road.
Gamewell Boxes - 1957
Boxes and "Phantom" Boxes
The 1957 Hamden City Directory lists 188 Gamewell fire alarm boxes. However many of the boxes on the list were only "phantom" boxes. For example, Box 167 at Carmel and Amherst and Box 438 at Dunbar Hill Road and Chauncey Road did not really exist. (There are several phantom boxes in the previous lists, as well.)
Following the dispatch of a full assignment of apparatus, the dispatcher documented the call by striking two rounds of the phantom box closest to the location of the reported emergency. Once all apparatus on a full assignment was returned to service, the dispatcher sounded "recall" by tapping out two hits of the alarm bells with the telegraph key located near the tape register. Every hit of the bell was date-time stamped on the Gamewell register tape in the Alarm Room.
By the mid-1960s, every street in town was assigned its own four-digit "phantom box" number and only the actual fire alarm boxes were listed on the printed posters in all fire stations.
Original Station 2 Status Board (Photo by Chan Brainard)
The apparatus status board helped personnel in every fire station to keep track of all other companies at all times. This was an absolute necessity with Hamden's Class-B Gamewell fire alarm telegraph system, so that appropriate companies could cover in on box alarms when first due companies were unavailable.
Whenever companies were dispatched or returned to service following a call, all stations were alerted 24 hours a day over a private telephone-PA system linking all stations. This was so that any change in a company's status could be noted by the man on watch.
When Hamden's was a Class-B alarm system, a Gamewell box alarm was received at the Alarm Room (or in later years, Central Communications) and was automatically retransmitted to all stations. Upon receipt of a pulled box, the firefighter assigned to the watch desk in every station was required to count the punched holes on the alarm tape for at least the first two rounds. Once the box number was determined, the man on watch checked the box card file for the location and running assignment. All companies on the first alarm of a Gamewell box assignment responded automatically. If a first due company on pulled box alarm was not available, it was the responsibility of the next due company to automatically cover in on the response.
The Hamden Fire Department went with a Class A system on April 30, 1984. The tape registers and take-up reels were removed from all stations, and alarms transmitted by the Gamewell fire alarm telegraph system were received only in Central Communications. The dispatcher read the tape and sent the appropriate companies in the same manner as any other alarm. Individual stations were no longer required to keep track of the status of apparatus assigned to other stations. After radio dispatch was introduced in 1988, only those stations involved in a response were alerted. On box assignments, however, all stations were alerted.