Emergency Telegraphs: Inside America’s Historic Fire & Police Call Boxes

Police call box at corner of D St. and 13½ St. NW in Washington, D.C.

Before 911 (or even household telephones), roughly 500 American cities relied on specialized call boxes tied into police and fire stations for everything from officer check-ins to emergency reports. In many places, these have been abandoned or adapted to new uses, but some still serve their centuries-old function in modern metropolises.

Washington, D.C. got its first wrought-iron fire boxes back in the early 1800s. These were spread out on blocks across the city and tied by telegraph to firehouses. Inside, the turning of a key would send an alarm to the appropriate station. At the station, firefighters would match the signal to a map and deploy a response team. Original boxes still on the streets can be identified by their curved “harp” shape.

1800s map of police call boxes in D.C. (red for fire, blue for police)

The city also later installed a series of police phone boxes. In the absence of two-way radio at the time, these were designed not to be used by citizens reporting crimes but by officers checking in. While making the rounds, they were expected to report back periodically from specific boxes to tell the station all was well in the area. Early call boxes of the police variety were generally more rectangular in shape.

Shaw Historic Fire and Police Call Box #7 in Washington, D.C. by Elvert Barnes (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With the advent of home phones and 911, many fire and police boxes fell into disuse. In D.C., they were finally disabled in the 1970s. A few years ago, though, citizens petitioned to give them a new purpose, hoping to populate them with art. The city, for its part, cleaned up hundreds of the old boxes and let communities transform them.

In the UK, some call boxes are reported to be bigger on the inside, by P Tarleton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But in some cities, including San Francisco and Boston, there are still some functional boxes. These can be particularly handy during disasters that knock out power and cellular networks.

Taxi call stand at Dortmunder Reinoldikirche in Germany by Joehawkins (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Other call boxes have come and gone over the years as well. In some places, taxi call boxes allow passengers to hail a cab from a taxi stand. Big retailers also developed networks to allow shoppers to summon assistance within a department store. College and university campuses often space out call stations for people to contact campus security.

Emergency roadside call box in Northern California, image by Kurt Kohlstedt

Many United States highways have emergency roadside call boxes that either allow normal voice communication or provide a simplified set of color-coded options. In some boxes, for instance, motorists can press blue to report an accident or other emergency, green to request a truck for a broken-down vehicle, black for help with an empty gas tank or flat tire (or yellow to cancel one of those other requests).

But in some places, roadside emergency boxes may be on their way out as well. In California, for instance, the system is expensive to maintain and its usage has declined over time, from nearly 100,000 calls in 2001 to around 20,000 in 2010, presumably due to widespread mobile phone ownership. If these roadside call boxes indeed become fewer and farther between, perhaps they, too, can find a new life housing highway-side artworks.

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  1. Patrick Bradley

    Thanks fro bringing back old memories.
    In 1970 the Baltimore (MD) police department still utilized call boxes as an accessible land-line phone for patrol officers to call the disrict station, communications, etc. or to ask for an outside line. In earlier generations foot patrol officers used call boxes to store police reports, rain gear, etc. In 1971 foot patrol Officer Carl Peterson was killed in west Baltimore as he walked an arrestee to the call box to call for a prisoner transport wagon…the same way he had done for years prior to being issued the walkie-talkie that hung on his hip. The prisoner attacked Peterson at the call box and killed him with his own service revolver.

    When call boxes were being removed from Baltimore City streets the locks were re-used on various secure “police only” locations because the keys were unique and only issued to police officers . For years you could date a police officer’s EOD by whether they still carried a call box key.

    Days of yore. Patrick Bradley BPD 1970-1994

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