The fire alarm call box at the corner of Wheeler Road and Upsal Street in Southeast Washington used to be the butt of all the jokes around fire station 25. You could set your watch by that alarm box, the firefighters would tell you - 8 a.m., when the kids were on their way to nearby McGogney School, 11:30 recess, and 3 p.m., when school was let out.
In the book where all the calls for the station house are logged, one disgruntled firefighter once penned the notation, "Wheeler Rd. and Upsal - again."
But that was before the old lever-pull alarm box was replaced with the new style telephone box after an 18-month pilot test had proved that the telephone really did deter youths from pulling false alarms.
There are now 191 telephone boxes in the city - mostly in the prime areas for false alarms, the Anacostia River area and the Southeast - and the fire department recently announced that the citywide phase out of the old lever-pull boxes should begin within a month.
False alarms have always been a problem in the District, as in most major cities, with more than 40 percent of all street alarms here being fake. According to police and fire department officials, "very few" people are ever caught - much less convicted - of pulling false fire alarms, a crime in the District punishable with a $300 fine and a six month jail term.
"The only time we really get them is if we get somebody pulling the same false alarm consistently," said Sgt. Charles Lintner of the police arson squad.
The peak time for false alarms is Friday and Saturday nights, when the weather is warm, the bars are closing and people are on their way home from parties. "At midnight, all hell breaks loose," firefighter Donald Yates said, pointing out that on normal weekends the department gets up to 60 false alarms.
"The real crusher is just after you have a fire, you get back and you're tired, and there it goes and you know it's fake," firefighter Peter McCartney. "That's when you really hear the firehouse language."
"It's a shame you just can't let the things run down and never rewind them," Yates added.
In the District, the fire department tried everything to check the spread of false fire alarms. They tried coating the pull levers on the boxes with dusting powder - a dye that shows up only under a black light - and they tried attaching a siren to the boxes to ward off practical jokers. The number of false alarms, however, only increased.
At one point, cameras were even installed inside the boxes to take photographs of anyone pulling the lever. But one station house story has it that, once, when firefighters responded toan alarm from one such box, they were greeted by a crowd of young pranksters who asked. "Say, Mr. Fireman, how much do you charge for a group picture?"
That's when, in 1971, the D.C. Fire Department decided to make a pilot test of direct-line telephone boxes, on the theory that having to pick up a receiver and be questioned as to the whereabouts of the "fire" would deter false alarms. Also, the callers voice was recorded, which added the deterent of possible identification using voice prints.
According to James F. Flynn, the fire department's director of communications, the pilot test resulted in a 93 percent reduction in the numberof false alarms for those particular boxes replaced.
"It's a sneaky thing to pull a false alarm-nothing happens until the trucks arrive," Flynn said. "It's different standing there with a telephone in your hand. It's not a sneaky act anymore."
The telephone boxes operate in conjunction with a new computerized system for dispatching firestrucks. The computers, which provide the dispatcher with up-to-the-minute information on the location of all fire-trucks and ambulances, are already giving fire alarm headquarters a somewhat futuristic look, with space-age computer consoles and a large, lighted map of the city.
The computer system - together with the telephone boxes-will cost the fire department $2 million.
Flynn maintains, however, that in time, the purchase will pay for itself, in terms of money saved, by cutting down on false runs for the engine companies. He said that "sometime before inflation" became a problem, the department calculated that every false alarm cost the city $15 for tire, oil and gasoline. Now, he said, $50 is probably a "realistic estimate" of the waste.
Flynn said the complete changeover to the new system should begin in about 30 days as soon as all the problems are worked out of the computer system.
The changeover to the telephone boxes could have an added bonus: the city could earn up to $40,000 from the sale of the 1,200 old boxes to those who want as memorabilia.
Assistant Chief John Devine is trying to clear the way for firefighters to buy the boxes as keepsakes at about $30 each. Present city law, however, forbids city employes from purchasing equipment from their jobs. The alternative Devine noted, is to sell all of them in one lot to the highest bidder, a method that he personally opposes because "some big bidder will come in and take them all for a little."
Still, replacing the old lever-pull boxes with telephones will not mean the end of all unnecessary runs for the firefighters. One fireman at station house 25, Robert Wood, said, "We haven't had as much trouble since they put in that new voice box - now we just end up driving around hanging up the phones."