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Sounding the Fire Alarm

John Lofland relates the workings and problems with an early fire alarm

Submitted by:  John Lofland, 10/16/2006
This entry relates to the past
Category(ies) of this entry:  Old Davis, Davis Institutions, Fire

 In 1939 and for a while later, it appears that Davis had a single establishment that stayed open all-night. That was the Terminal Hotel. In this sense, the Terminal Building housed the watcher of the night, the single entity awake to sound the alarm in the case of emergency.

This came to be because in November of 1939 the telephone system changed from a live operator to an automatic system. Prior to that, there was an all-night live telephone operator in Davis who served as the watcher of the night and to whom people reported fire and other emergencies. The operator then relayed the calls to the right authority.

Having no operator, the first Fire Department response was to hook the Department’s phone directly to the alarm. This was quickly abandoned because pranksters rang up only to set off the alarm. One mother even instructed her children that it was time to come home when they heard the fire alarm, for she would call up in order to set it off.

The solution then devised was to have an extension on the Fire Department phone (number 456), near the cash register at the Terminal Hotel and Cafe. Someone was always there when it rang. The employee who answered that phone took the call and then called the unlisted number that set off the fire alarm.

This system was not perfect, though. There were only 999 numbers on the system (and only some 750 subscribers) in Davis. Teenagers made it a game to call numbers until they hit it. This made it necessary to change the unlisted number “about every four months.”    

All this gaming became unnecessary when Davis grew large enough to staff the fire station twenty-four hours a day.  

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