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How an iconic piece of San Francisco history became a symbol of its dysfunction

An illustration shows San Francisco emergency call boxes wilting.
San Francisco's historic emergency call boxes stand on 2,000 intersections. The majority don't work. | Source: Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard

On about 2,000 intersections across San Francisco stand bright red emergency call boxes adorned with tiny gabled roofs, foliate molding and, if in mint condition, flame-shaped finials. Each has crystal clear instructions: “FIRE ALARM/BREAK GLASS/PULL HOOK/DOWN ONCE/AND LET GO.”

What happens if you follow those instructions? That’s anything but clear.

Most of the time, the answer is nothing, because almost three-quarters of the boxes simply don’t work. If the box is a rare functioning unit, an emergency crew might be dispatched to the scene—almost inevitably in vain, because 95% or more of the calls turn out to be false alarms, whether from malfunctioning equipment or pranksters. In some cases, as with one at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Sunset, the false alarms were so persistent that the city’s Department of Technology, which manages the boxes, decided to deactivate it preemptively.

This hasn’t always been the case. As recently as 2018, the department reported that 87% of the call boxes worked, even if the calls rarely reflected actual emergencies. But at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the city stopped maintaining the 160-year-old system, and it quickly fell apart.

Other cities with similar archaic systems have taken action in one form or another: New York City retrofitted with speakers to directly communicate with dispatchers, Washington, D.C., turned them into public art and Seattle ripped them out entirely decades ago. But with San Francisco facing an $800 million budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, even those modest fixes appear off the table. For now, the city has settled for covering some—but not the majority—of the non-operational boxes with bags.

Just a few years ago, Supervisor Aaron Peskin called for a hearing to make sure the system was in good order. Now, the preservationist mayoral candidate is more pragmatic.

“The right thing to do is to make it abundantly clear with some very straightforward signage that they're not operable,” Peskin said. “They’re neat, historic relics, but I think we should be honest with ourselves that it's not the best place to put our money.”

For now, then, the boxes stand as a reminder of San Francisco’s colorful past—and a slightly uncomfortable symbol of its dysfunctional present.

A composite image of three San Francisco emergency call boxes in the Ingleside District in different states of repair.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, of the five bright red alarm boxes on the nine-block stretch of Ocean Avenue, only one appeared in good order, several were missing parts and one was missing altogether. | Source: Alex Mullaney/The Standard

160-year-old technology

State-of-the-art when it was first installed in the 1860s, the call box system was critical to a growing city that burned to the ground three times before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Yet a plan to retrofit, retire or remove it has remained elusive for city leaders, despite a false-alarm problem dating back to at least the 1970s. Not only do the false alarms waste fire department resources, but the advent of new communications technology has also rendered the system obsolete.

During the pandemic, the technology department reassigned maintenance crews tasked with repairing the boxes to build “new fiber conduits and expand a network of free, high-speed internet, which brought hundreds of sites across San Francisco online,” technology department spokesperson Brian Adam said.

Connected by 200 miles of underground conduit leased from AT&T and 150 miles of overhead cable, the system was designed so no person is more than two blocks away from one.

Pulling the switch generates a small electric current that travels along insulated copper wires to the Dispatch Center in the Western Addition and encodes a Morse code message with the box’s unique number. A dispatcher then alerts the nearest fire station.

Before the call boxes, firefighters used tower bells to announce fires. Later, rudimentary electrical devices signaled fires with a three-dial repeater for electrically striking a bell. Emergency call boxes were first installed in the 1860s. By the turn of the century, the central fire alarm station on Brenham Place was to be moved inside City Hall, but the great quake of 1906 toppled the building.

Since the widespread adoption of the telephone and radio, the emergency call box system has faced a scourge of false alarms that have roused firefighters at all hours for nothing.

When the percentage of false alarms reached 80% in 1970, Fire Chief William F. Murray and city workers responded by turning off and booby-trapping boxes with high rates of misuse with “alerters”—high-frequency screeches—and offering $500 rewards for information leading to the arrest of false-alarm pullers.

This system also served as a redundant city telephone network for emergencies. It was particularly useful after the Loma Prieta Earthquake when phone lines were knocked out for three days.

False alarms climbed to 85% by 2004, according to a Controller’s Office audit of fire and emergency medical services. The report recommended retiring the system. Back then, Las Vegas and Seattle had already removed street box alarms because of the high false alarm rate and the rise of widespread phone service and cellphones. New York City upgraded the technology in its street boxes, adding a speaker so that dispatchers can attempt to confirm the need for emergency response.

The report conceded that some people—including those without phones or limited English—may need the alarms but said “the city should consider removing street boxes, and/or installing deterrent devices that have been proven to reduce the incidence of false alarms.”

The system’s usefulness declined further, with the number of false calls reaching 96% in 2018, a figure disclosed at a Board of Supervisors hearing on the state of the system spurred by media reports that drew attention to boxes covered with bags and even one wrapped in a towel and duct tape.

Linda Gerull, the technology department’s head, testified then that 87% of the alarm boxes were functioning and work crews were out repairing ones rendered nonoperational by rain, construction and vandalism. The system proved to be a “maintenance challenge” because parts were no longer manufactured and the 160-year-old copper cables were deteriorating. Servicing the underground conduits required digging up streets. “We're looking at some modern options, wireless radio-based or cellular communications, instead of the copper cables,” Gerull said. “Solar-powered instead of electric-powered, possibly fiber.”

A well-maintained emergency call box in San Francisco's Ingleside district.
The San Francisco Department of Technology maintains a dwindling number of emergency call boxes, like this one on Ocean Avenue in Ingleside. | Source: Alex Mullaney/The Standard

Do the boxes have a future?

Not long after the hearing, the technology department conducted a small pilot of radio-based technology in Mission Bay but determined it wouldn’t scale citywide, Adam said. It also commissioned a study of the emergency response system in its entirety in 2019 that was completed in 2021 but has not been finalized yet, according to the technology department. A request for $40 million in capital funds to retrofit 1,200 boxes was denied in 2019.

Faced with budget constraints and a backlog of deferred maintenance, the city must “figure out what are the nice-to-haves and what are the need-to-haves, and I think that this is no longer a need-to-have,” Peskin said about the system last week.

The fire department wants to move on, too, and find “an alternative that ensures response equity and disaster resilience,” spokesperson Lt. Mariano Elias said.

The Mayor’s Office isn’t as definitive.

“Not to say that we shouldn't be figuring out either how to fully sunset this system or retrofit it, it's more about what are the top priorities in the city, considering workforce shortages and a really challenging budget deficit,” said Parisa Safarzadeh, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed.

Woody LaBounty, head of the preservationist group San Francisco Heritage, who once pulled an alarm box at 11th Avenue and Lake Street as a kid, said they are part of the character of the streets.

“Probably 99% of people would bemoan their loss,” LaBounty said. “They may not be practical—and I guess I could see the problem with having something that looks like it’s there for an emergency but doesn't work—but I do think it's part of what makes a real city when you have these little connections to the services that the city provides.”