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          HOUSE OF ALARM BELLS

          Rings with City’s Exciting Calls for Help
          Fire Boxes Lead in Jangling Chorus

          More bells ring in a small tan building at [1003] Turk and Octavia streets than any other place in town.

          San Francisco Central Fire Alarm Station Last year they rang more than ever. you have that on the word of Chief Fire Dispatcher Chester Balliette. His office, clearing house for the 1532 fire boxes in the city, handled 8917 fire alarms in the fiscal year ending June 30.

          “Figure that out. That’s more than one alarm for every hour in the year—day and night, week days, Sundays and holidays.” Balliette shakes his gray thatched head and green eye visor to hammer home his point.

          RISES THROUGH 25 YEARS

          He has seen the number of fire alarms rise from about 3000 a year, when he entered the Department of Electricity 25 years ago, to the present all-time high.

          And he is very definite about the fact that it is the Department of Electricity that runs the fire box system and the“so-called” Police Department radio station.

          Chester Balliette, chief fire dispatcher, at the console at 1003 Turk St.Balliette sits at a green movie-version city editor’s desk. Before him is an instrument panel, resembling to the uninitiated a transatlantic airplane dashboard. It is full of lights, switches, buzzers and any number of unintelligible things.

          CLANGING CONTINUOUS

          Any interview with this husky, powerfully built man of 55 is done between the ringing of two telephones and the general sounding off of incoming fire alarm bells, mysterious lights flicking on and off, the click-click of other equipment.

          He sits on a large chair, mounted on well oiled casters.

          Without effort he swings from one side of his desk to the other, broadcasting fire alarms over the “police” radio station; sending out fire box numbers to the fire stations; taking data on traffic signals that will not signal; listening to people trying to report a fire.

          STILL ALARMS LEAD

          Most of the fire alarms are reported by private citizens over the telephone, 4875 out of 8917 last year.

          When you pick up your telephone receiver and gasp, “Give me the Fire Department, quick!” you get Balliette or some of his assistants. (The office remains open 24 hours a day, the men working in eight-hour shifts.)

          The veteran shakes his head at the way people report fires, but he sympathizes with their excitement. “Maybe they have an invalid upstairs; maybe a lifetime’s savings is going up in the fire,” he says. “Naturally they get befuddled.”

          EVERYTHING BUT ESSENTIALS

          “They tell me everything about the fire, except where it is. They describe for me. They tell me that it is three doors from the corner, but won’t say which corner.”

          When he gets a report, he swings to high right and his sensitive fingers begin pounding out the box number on a big brass key to the fire stations.

          He has seen as many as seven fire boxes come in at the same time; but he and his assistant separate the bells, identify the box and notify the stations.

          The increase in the number of fires he attributes to the gradual aging of the city’s buildings. This year’s particular jump, he feels is due to the wet winter, growing more grass, thus causing more grass fires. June and July are the worst months each year. Last month heard 1118 fire alarms.

          The fire alarm station is more than that. It houses the “police” short wave station and adjusters for each of the 654 traffic signals in the city.

          The building itself is the last word in fireproofing—a concrete and steel structure with no windows.

          It has an auxiliary electrical system in the basement which would make possible operation of its equipment should the Pacific Gas and Electric cease operations for any reason.

          A central fire alarm system was established in the [eighteen] sixties and has been going since. The present building was erected in 1915 and the system has constantly been improved.

          “I’m sorry to interrupt you,“ says the reporter.

          “You can’t interrupt me,” answers the chief dispatcher. ”This work has to go on.” He swings toward his brass key. He swings back to his telephone. He flicks a switch.


          San Francisco Chronicle
          July 11, 1937
          See: Fire Alarm Operations in the 1870s

          Fire Alarm Operations during the 1906 earthquake

          Safer Fire Alarm Station Proposed - 1912

          History of the Fire Alarm System - 1951

          Fire Alarm Operations during the 1991 Oakland fire storm


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