History of the Seymour Fire Alarm – By James Morgan

It was part of our childhood, the nine o’clock whistle warned all good children to be at home.  It was the voice of excitement, the herald of shiny fire apparatus thundering down the street toward a distant plume of smoke.  It was the call to battle, the harbinger of choking smoke and searing heat.  From the Tingue Opera House fire in 1882 to the Seymour Specialty Wire Fire in 1996 the firefighters of Seymour responded to the siren call of the local fire alarm.  To the families of the town the wives of members knew that there would be a empty seat at the dinner table they and the other citizens of the town would offer a prayer for the safety of the firemen.  The children would dream of the day when they too could enter the fight against the ‘red devil’.

It is no more, the whistle no longer blasts through the cold and the bell hangs silent in the tower.  Replaced by modern electronic pagers and condemned by equally modern suburbanites as a disturber of their peace.

Fire was not a stranger to the town of Seymour, even before the fire company was organized bells would ring from mills, churches and even private homes to announce the threat.  In 1940 such a bell which had hung on the home of Carlos French on Washington Avenue was presented at a ball of the company. The bell was given to an Episcopal Church on Cape Cod. 

When the Citizens Engine Company was first organized no alarm system was in existence.  By 1882 the deficiency was obvious. Members of the fire company recognized that “Some delay in getting to the engine house and fire showed the necessity of a more efficient arrangement for giving an alarm and a subscription paper was started by Wm. B. Swan, E.E. Adams and others for the purpose of raising funds to procure a bell.  Something over two hundred dollars was quickly raised, of which the members of the fire company contributed the greater share.  The bell was purchased and an appropriation was voted by the town to build a bell tower.”   Due to the relatively short distance that the department could cover dragging the heavy steamer and pulling the hose carts, the sounding of the bell at the firehouse covered two purposes.  First it alerted the citizenry to a fire in the town and second provided the manpower to move the apparatus.  The bell was intended to be sounded by a firefighter who had a key to the tower he would then pull a rope attached to the bell until the company arrived.  The company would then respond with their apparatus.

At the time of the Tingue Opera House fire the Seymour Transcript reported that “The tower had but just been completed and the bell placed in position, but the bell rope had not been attached, and the alarm was rung by a fireman who climbed up into the tower and swung the bell tongue by hand.”   This system worked well as many of the fire department members lived close by and could be awakened by the ringing bell.

With the growth of the town and the diversity of the membership the old system was no longer adequate.  One of the major problems with the system is that no matter where the fire was members had to travel to the fire house first instead of the shortest route to the fire.  Often the apparatus had left and the member had to play catch up.  Also the company had located hose carts in various places in the town and these could be put in service much faster than the centralized apparatus at the firehouse.  The fact that only members had keys was another serious problem.

In June of 1893 it was suggested by the Evening Sentinel that a system of signals be developed to indicate the location of the fire.  F.H. Beecher took the lead in developing the signal system which is the present system of the neighborhood fire alarm box location.  About the same time it was realized that the old bell was not sounding its full tone.  It was recognized that the striker was placed too far up the bell, which made the tone flat.  The old tongue was put in and strikes in the proper place which gives the desired tone.

Many of the Boxes and their location are familiar to present firefighters. Box 26 was Bank and Martha Streets, while others like box 24, the James Swan Company (Chisel Shop) on Mill Street and box 61, Derby Avenue, have faded with the changes of time.

About 1893 a fire alarm system of some sort was in use but it required that a member of the company with a key was required to send in the alarm.  An article in the Evening Sentinel stated, “At the fire in Vois’s barber shop this morning there has been some discussion in regard to the advisability of the fire company making provision whereby a person not a member of the company can readily send an alarm in case of fire.  There are two persons, at least, who feel there was a unnecessary delay in reaching the fire bell, Monday morning because the men who ran to the alarm had no key to the engine house.

‘If there where any delay which had serious consequences, should a fire be discovered in the dead of night any kind of disaster might result.

“In many volunteer fire engine houses a member of the company sleeps in the building, his room being connected with the outside by an electric bell.  Such a arrangement could undoubtedly be installed in the Citizens house..”

While nothing was done to install a fireman in the Citizens house to give the alarm at night the campaign for an alarm system continued.  Naugatuck installed a system of street boxes in 1899 and the Evening Sentinel printed the following article, “In less than a second after the hook inside the box is drawn to the bottom of the box, the alarm has begun to sound in the two hose houses in the borough…”·

While the need for a fire alarm system was obvious the old system of firemen sounding the location from the firehouse continued in use.  In 1900 a study done by Engineer James Smith concluded that the bell, now located in the tower of the new firehouse should be raised two feet.  It was found that the bell was located so low that the sound went down the tower rather than into the air. The necessary work was done for fifteen dollars.

By 1906 the need was pressing the Evening Sentinel editorialized, “Some sentiment has been expressed here occasionally, that a fire alarm would be a very good thing for Seymour, and that it would have a tendency to lessen fire insurance rates, and would be a safeguard for property.  At the present time word has to be gotten to some firemen in case of a blaze, and he is then supposed to ring an alarm.

“In some instances, there is quite a little confusion as to the location of a fire, and this would, of course, be done away with were there a fire alarm system.  It is learned that a fire alarm system in case the factory owners could be secured to co-operate with the town, for less than $1500.  In that case fire alarms would be located near the different factories, and would be of service to the neighborhood where they were, as well as to the factory people, the companies and the town bearing each, a proportion of the cost of installing the boxes.

“The cost of maintenance is said to be small, especially in such an alarm system as would meet all requirements in a town like Seymour.  A well known fire alarm man said that in a place like Seymour it could be maintained for $100 a year.  The advantages of a local fire alarm system seem almost too numerous to mention, over the present antiquated system of alarm.  People who live at some distance from the engine house have considerable risk, as a fire could easily gain damaging headway before the company could be called out.  That property owners have been fortunate in this respect is a matter of congratulation, but a fire alarm system would insure greater safety in the future.”

The fire alarm system, of twenty four street boxes, was contracted for in 1907.  Manufactured by the Gamewell Company the system was typical of the fire alarm systems being installed throughout the country.  The fire alarm system was powered by batteries installed in the fire house and kept charged by current drawn, at no charge, from the nearby trolley wires of the Connecticut Railway and Lighting Company.  The alarm was transmitted by a clockwork motor turning a wheel which opened and closed the circuit when “the hook” was pulled.  Of the twenty four original alarm boxes ten were installed at manufacturing plants.  One additional number, the “No School” signal could also be transmitted by sounding the Fire Alarm.

The new fire alarm system automatically sounded the bell in the firehouse by striking the bell with a hammer.  The hammer powered by a weight hanging in the tower.  The bell striker was activated by an Acme bell striking machine which is still located in the tower.  The firehouse also contained a punching tape machine to record the alarm and a combination gong/indicator.

Although the firehouse was centrally located the fire alarm often could not be heard throughout the town.  It was customary for the factory whistles of certain manufacturers to repeat the alarm, such as the Brass Mill whistle at Seymour Manufacturing, the whistle at the James Swan Company and the whistle at the Kerite Company.  The brass mill whistle and Swan Company whistle were activated automatically while the Kerite Company whistle was sounded manually by the Kerite Company watchman.

Although the fire whistles were installed on private property they were still the responsibility of the Town.  In 1938 the fire whistle at the Seymour Manufacturing failed having worn out.  It was replaced by a whistle borrowed from the Waterbury Fire Department.  Chief Swan, who took over the responsibility for restoring the whistle, tested three replacement whistles including one which had served on a steamboat from New London.  The whistle system had other problems.  When the manufacturing companies did not have steam, such as when the companies were shut down for vacation or holidays there was no way to sound the fire alarm except for the city owned bell.   On July 1, 1945, a fire occurred at the home of Mr. & Mrs. H. Dukely on Derby Avenue.  As the Seymour Manufacturing Company had been shut down for vacation the air raid siren was sounded to summon the firemen to the firehouse to bring the apparatus to the burning house.

By the 1940’s the fire alarm system was beginning to show its age.  Many of the alarm boxes were those installed in 1908.  The system itself was of the ‘interfering type’ which meant that an alarm sent from one box could interfere with the sending of a alarm from another box as was demonstrated by a fire in Beck’s Poultry barn on New Street, July 7, 1940.  “…the alarm was sent in from Box 51 at exactly 1:00 am. However only one gong sounded from the old box on New Street, as the coils, which had been repeatedly repaired during the life of the box gave up the ghost entirely….  Superintendent Ernest Culverwell today announced that box 51 is gone beyond recall.  A new box for New Street has been ordered and is expected to arrive this week. The coils are all gone he says.   Box 51 was an old box, so when the glass was shattered to turn in the alarm and the door left ajar, no other alarm could be sent in.  So the door had to be closed before the other alarms could be used”.

Interfering and broken fire alarm boxes were not the only problem with the alarm system.  Basically the fire alarm system only covered the downtown area.  The lack of hydrants and early warning doomed most buildings beyond the city limits.  On September 29, 1941 the popular restaurant Green Acres located on lower Derby Avenue approximately where Route 8 is now, burned to the ground.  In order to direct firefighters to the scene Box 62, the last box on Derby Avenue was sounded.

False alarms, a plague in later years, were rare in Seymour, a newspaper clipping from January 2, 1944 stated, “A false alarm sounded from Box 16, corner of Bank and Third, this is the first phony in several years.”

Mention should be made of the system of air raid sirens installed after entry into World War II.  A system of two large electric sirens was installed on the roof of the Pond Extract Company Mill and on the H. P. & E. Day Company.  these sirens remained in use throughout the war and afterward.

The problem of a lack of ability to sound the alarm when the various mills were not operational persisted.  As the result of a fire in June of 1949 at the Seymour Auto Company in which the whistle could not be sounded, it was decided to seek the installation of a air horn in the tower of the fire station.  The proposal was made by Chief Swan who estimated the cost at $2000.  A month later the need was reinforced by a fire in the main mill of the New Haven Copper Company.

The Evening Sentinel reported “An alarm was sounded with the bell on the firehouse tolling the three bells signifying a still alarm.  A few minutes later the air raid siren was sounded to call out the firemen…. Seymour’s whistle system cannot be used either this week or next week as the Seymour Manufacturing Company which supplies steam for the whistle is closed down for the annual vacation period….  This is the second time in three days that Seymour has had a fire without adequate means to sound the alarm”.

The whistle and a compressor and tank, installed in an addition on the east side of the firehouse were in place by 1951.  This system still was activated from the street boxes or from police headquarters in response to a telephone call.

The location of the new air horn in the tower of the fire house provided coverage for the center of town.  The alarm was sounded in the Great Hill area by a siren located near the fire house.

The Gamewell street box system was vulnerable to breaks and lightening strikes as well as mistakes by citizens.  In August of 1960 a lightning bolt knocked out the master panel and caused two flash fires.  With the fire alarm system disabled the alarm was sounded from the Civil Defense for a structure fire on Garden Street.

Nor was the system immune from man made disasters.  In September of 1961 a false alarm was sounded from Box 67 at Pearl and Grand.  This was immediately followed by the fire box at Maple and Pearl.  Firemen responding to the box found an old man with his unmailed missives before the box looking puzzled.

The technology was changing. Radios on fire apparatus dated from the late 1940’s, Chief Swan installed a radio in his private car which doubled as the Chiefs car for fire in Seymour in the late 1940’s.

By the 1950’s radios were available to firemen for monitoring radio transmissions.  These radios, which looked like the table radios available at the time, allowed firefighters to monitor the fire department frequency.  All transmissions on the frequency were heard and the radio had to be tuned by hand.  At first no effort was made to follow a procedure which would give a listener the location of the fire and other vital information.  As the radio was on at all times extraneous noises and chatter often invaded the household being quickly removed by a wife with a quick application of the “off” switch.

In the 1960’s the Plectron Company offered a alerting radio which could be placed on standby and activated by a tone transmitted from a dispatcher.  The radio could be used to transmit the alarm into the homes of firefighters having these units and would not subject the household to undue disturbance.  In the early sixties several valley towns equipped their fire departments with such systems including Oxford, Derby, Naugatuck, Watertown and Southbury.  Early in 1962 the firefighters of Seymour sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen to obtain a home alert system for the town.  The letter, signed by thirty five firemen, stated their letter was a plea not a petition, sent to the fire chiefs of Seymour that ‘we are interested in a radio system for home use’.  and that a system of this type would be beneficial to the town, as well as the firemen, adding more audible alerting units to the town fire alarm.