New York to Deactivate Street Fire Alarm Boxes

March 12, 2010

The fire department is preparing to deactivate its 15,000 street alarm boxes throughout New York City to save money and eliminate the thousands of false alarms triggered when the buttons are pushed.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano told the City Council during a budget hearing Wednesday that the move, which requires court and legislative approval, would save $6 million in the first fiscal year.

Of the 12,931 calls from alarm boxes in 2009, 85 percent — or 10,997 — were false alarms, the fire department said.

And of the fire department’s 26,666 calls reporting structural fires in 2009, less than one percent — or 140 — came from an alarm box.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested eliminating the system in his January budget proposal, but the idea dates back 15 years to his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani.

When Giuliani first tried to get rid of the system in the 1990s, he was thwarted by a judge after a group of deaf and hearing-impaired people sued, arguing alarm boxes were necessary for them to report emergencies.

The court prohibited the city from deactivating the system.

The court also said the fire department could later apply to lift the injunction if it showed that deaf and hearing-impaired people had another adequate way of reporting fires.

There are two types of alarm boxes. One is activated by pulling a lever, and no voice contact is made with the caller. The other has a button and the caller can talk with a dispatcher about the emergency.

Cassano told the City Council that officials believe gains in technology, such as the popularity of mobile phones, mean that the city can finally get rid of the system.

“We are confident that call boxes can be deactivated without jeopardizing public safety,” the commissioner said.

But the lawyer who filed the federal suit in 1995 for the Civic Association for the Deaf disagrees.

“The street alarm box system remains an essential service for the deaf and hearing-impaired in New York City,” attorney Robert Stulberg said. “We are not aware of any system that would substitute for it and justify any modification of the court injunction.”

In addition to winning federal court approval, the city would also need to get the City Council to sign off by repealing a local law that requires a street alarm box approximately every four city blocks.

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