as recalled by my probationary officer just prior to his retirement.
My Department, 1968
Day Watch in the fire department had a single responsibility and that was to monitor the bells. The bells were sent out from the central dispatch station to all stations via telegraph. Each series of bells had a meaning and it was necessary to pay careful attention or the company would miss a call.
Ding:.ding..ding rang over the bells and the teletype rattled out a short message: 135. Alarm Box 135, a reported fire. The tickertape nearby had a corresponding alarm code along with other dots in sequence. These were translated into a complex code system.
The day watchman reached for the large cabinet under the telegraph which stores the cards which will let him identify which companies are due to that fire. He fumbles at first, not sure if he’ll find the right card but does. Card in hand, he quickly places a clothespin on the ticker tape at number 135, the purpose of which will become obvious in a moment.
Over on a large board on what would pass for an architect’s desk is a series of labeled holes. The holes are arranged horizontally in columns three wide, then two wide, then one and then three more. There are 10 rows from top to bottom, a good 90 or so in all. There are also pegs with tops the size of quarters on another section of the board, each with a letter and a number. Some say engine, some say truck, and there are about a dozen random others, including chiefs of course.
The card labeled 135 lists all units due to that particular area as well as subsequent alarms due. In other words, if you needed a 14th alarm, this card tells you who is due.
Scanning the card, he reads that engines 1, 2 and 3 are due to this fire and moves their pegs into position on the first row on the board. All the while bells are ringing, the ticker tape keeps coming, and the clothespin is now hanging from the desk, dangling. Referring back, trucks 1 and 3 as well as battalions 1 and 2 are due and he places their pegs as well. With a piece of chalk he writes on the far left of the column the number 135 and returns the card to the drawer.
Finished “pegging the board”he returns to the ticker tape which is now on the floor. The clothespin is still in place at the last alarm pegged. Scanning up the tape he is able to read a code that only a few firemen still recall.
The tape reads, among other things 1-1-5-5, which means Engine 1 is out of service, 2-1-2-2 records that truck 2 is back in quarters. All these transmissions must be updated on the board in order to know when your company is due to a fire.
Today alarms from central dispatch alert the station when there is an alarm. In this system it is the day watchman who must track the movements of the rest of the department and ring the bell in his own house to announce when his units are to respond. There is no automatic alarm, no lights coming on automatically, just the bells.
It can be very confusing for a person new to such a system to be able to understand not only what each code means, but to begin to anticipate that because one unit is out of service, the next unit on the card is due. Then in the next fire, because the other was out and the other went another is due. You can see how easy it is to get lost.
After 7 hours on the watch the rookie is relieved and another member takes over pegging the board. As he walks away he notices something that would become the most amazing thing he has ever seen until one hour from now.
The man who relieved him at the ticker was not looking at the ticker tape as the bells rang or opening the card drawer to see which units were due. He was doing it all from memory. The bells began to come quickly, almost overlapping each other and the new watchman simply kept moving pegs from the “in service”area to the rows of box alarms and back. All while still reading the newspaper.
“How do you do that?”He wondered out loud.
“Take a hike, kid.” Was the only explanation offered.
An hour later, upstairs laying down for bed there was an odd excitement in the air. This was his third night in the firehouse and he always waited for the main bell to ring. You see, even upstairs in the dorm you could hear the bells from the ticker constantly ringing, but without seeing the board to know what companies were in service or seeing the card to know who’s due, there was an anticipation for each series of bells. The nightwatch was easier because it was often slower. The trick was staying awake, often with the help of strong coffee and cigarettes.
While laying wide awake, there was a rustle from the senior firefighter sleeping nearby who suddenly sat bolt upright and began to dress.
“Let’s go kid, that one is ours.â€
“I didn’t hear the bells.”He apologized prematurely as the main bell began to ring.
“Box 113, engine, truck”was shouted and the whole dorm came alive. For a second everything froze and the rookie was able to scan the dorm and notice something interesting.
All the experienced fireman were already standing up when the bell rang.
They had heard the bells from below and tracked the status in their heads, and while asleep at that.
Down the pole he went and off to the fire they were.
This is the first of a number of memories passed along to me that I will be sharing as the times allow, I’ve tagged them as “Tales.”
The image shown is labeled as the New Orleans Fire Department in 1957.