What Exactly Is a Box Alarm, Nozzlehead?

Issue 4 and Volume 8.

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m a relatively new member of our fire department. I took the test a few years ago, finally got hired and am definitely enjoying it. I’ve read your column (it’s required reading by our captain) and appreciate your insight and candor. My request may be very simple, but quite honestly, I’m confused as to what constitutes a box alarm and what is a second-, third- and fourth-alarm box? It’s a foreign term in our area. I’m confused by some other terms as well, but “box alarm” is the one I see the most when I’m reading fire magazines and websites.
—Boxed Out in Mississippi
Dear Boxy,
I smiled when I got your letter as I love the fact that we do some things differently in the American fire service. I also hate the fact that we do some things differently in the American fire service. So before I go off on a rant and need to be sedated, let me clarify.
I LOVE the traditions and cultures that don’t lead to us getting jailed, suspended, terminated, sued or killed … you know, the stupid stuff like this: “It’s always been a tradition to spit in the food of new personnel here at engine 92.” Don’t do that! Or “We never lay a line on THIS engine company unless we can’t hold the fire with tank water.” Don’t do that either!
One of the interesting traditions of the job is how, as you noted, different areas use different terminologies for the same things. The list is huge and I can’t cover it all, so I’ll give you a few examples and then you can travel across North America and figure out the rest of this. For example, what’s the name of that group of firefighters who stands by just in case something goes wrong at a fire? Standby crew? RIT? RIC? RAT? On Deck? FAST team? Yeah, exactly. And what’s a big fire apparatus that pumps water? An engine, wagon, pumper or quint? See.
Back to boxes. Box alarms started back when there were street pull boxes in most cities, usually on street corners, each box with its own distinctive number. When the box was pulled, a signal (sent via wires across the city) in the fire communications center (telegraph office) punched a ticker tape and rang a bell, and a file system containing a card with a planned response to an incident type for that box number was pulled. In areas with volunteer departments, outdoor fire horns, whistles and air-raid-type sirens sounded the box number very loud and clear!
For example, let’s say a fire alarm box is pulled at Maple and 4th streets, and it is labeled as Box 4-5. The box would automatically transmit that number to the communication center in somewhat of an automatic “Morse code” system that looks like this:
_ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _        _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _       _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _        _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _
The card for Box 4-5 (in the communications center) would contain the list of apparatus from various nearby fire stations that should be dispatched to the fire. Basically, it’s all about planning before the fire so you’re better prepared when there is a fire. And there will be a fire.
In volunteer communities back in the day, using the above example, the horns, whistle or sirens would “sound” four times, then five times, and often repeat. The volunteers would know exactly where to go to answer the alarm by counting the number of horn blasts. Some communities, such as New Hyde Park, N.Y. still use a very reliable system of pull boxes that, when pulled, activate units as described above—but the alarm is also received in the Nassau County Fire Communications Center, which activates their radios and pagers, too.
Assigning boxes to areas (back then—and today) facilitates the process of getting the right apparatus to the right place on the initial dispatch, and helps eliminate the guesswork of “which department does what” on the fire scene, which sounds like what your department is questioning now.
Actual street fire alarm boxes rarely exist in communities anymore because of phone access; however, the term still exists, as what many communities do is set up “box alarms” for specific geographic areas. It could be a specific building, an intersection, an area of a few blocks or even a few miles. A “box” area is one with a predetermined list of apparatus from various fire stations that will be dispatched to the incident at that location. Box alarms can vary based on time of day, incident type, weather, hydranted areas vs. non-hydranted areas and any other potential situation. A box alarm system can also cover entire states—and even beyond some state borders, such as the progressive and trendsetting Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) of Illinois, which has expanded into all of the surrounding states!
Any area that has not set up a box alarm system, thereby ensuring “the right stuff” on the first-alarm assignment and subsequent additional alarms (without a chief having to say “Have Giggityland send me an engine, have Topsyville send me a ladder truck, have Beltbuckletown send me an engine,” etc.) is like a pilot flying without a flight plan. You may get there, but the time and delays in figuring out how to get there create unfair delays to those actually having the fire.

I can easily state that a fire department with a box alarm system vs. one without a box alarm system has a much greater chance of saving lives, property and making a measurable difference than those that don’t … in so many ways. Hope that helps.
Terminology is great and something I love very much about our profession. Here are a few more examples I think you will enjoy:
•    Strike the box: This means give me a first-alarm assignment. Most of the time.
•    Strike out the box: The fire is under control.
•    Box the still: Upgrade the still alarm.
•    Still alarm: Less than a box—usually two engines, two trucks and a chief. Usually.
•    Worker: A fire that has all of the first-alarm companies involved in fighting the fire, which some people call an “all-hands” fire and others call a “major emergency.”
•    Bagger: An additional alarm. For example, in some areas, a third is called a three-bagger. (Of course in Chicago, that would be called a 3-11, from back in the old street box days.)
•    Yard Breather or Doorway Dancer: A person wearing firefighter bunker gear who always manages to have a problem with their PPE or SCBA and never is the first one to do a task.
•    Tip: It’s the knob, the pipe or, as most know it, the nozzle.
•    Penalty box or bone box: The whaaaambulance, for those who whine when they have to work on it.
•    Food on the stove: Food-burning call. This is the term used in New York, but in Chicago, it’s called a “pot of meat,” even if what’s burning is your asparagus and tofu.

Lastly, a job is usually something you apply for, but in New York, it’s a working fire. But “the job” is belonging to the FDNY or NYPD, such as being “on the job,” but the term may also be used by FDNY for an auto extrication, which is a pin-job … but in Chicago, it’s a pin-in! And in FDNY EMS, a job is an assignment, such as an EMS run. And a run? That’s a call, a detail, an assignment or a fire call … depending.
Thanks for writing! I am more than confident that I have now fully cleared up all of your previous confusion.