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‘Deteriorating’ emergency call box system in need of repairs, upgrade

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Around 13 percent of emergency call boxes across the city need repairs, according to city officials. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Alarm over San Francisco’s “deteriorating” emergency call boxes has city officials rethinking the 150-year-old system.

The City spends about $1.2 million annually to repair and operate 2,300 emergency call boxes around San Francisco.

The distinctive red boxes, which date back to the 1860s and operate over copper wiring in a conduit leased from AT & T, are appreciated for their historic charm but are also still used to make emergency calls.

The boxes caught people’s attention in recent weeks when city workers started applying masking tape and towels to broken boxes after having run out of their usual custom-made bags they use to cover broken boxes. The City’s 311 hotline even issued an alert to inform the public of what was afoot.

SEE RELATED: Supervisor wants answers over out-of-service emergency call boxes

Linda Gerull, chief information officer of the Department of Technology, apologized Wednesday “for any confusion in the community around the alarm boxes that are out of service” during a Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing called to investigate the matter by Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

It wasn’t made clear whether more boxes have fallen into disrepair than in previous times, but Gerull said about 7 to 10 percent are routinely out due to impacts from construction. Breakdowns are expected to increase with time given the condition of the 200 miles of copper cables and conduit.

Of the 2,300 boxes, she said Wednesday that 2,014 were working and 286, or 13 percent, were in disrepair. Every supervisorial district had multiple broken boxes except District 4, the Sunset District, which had all 149 boxes in working order. The highest percentage of boxes that weren’t working was in District 2, where 25 percent, or 67 of the 270 boxes, were out of commission.

Gerull said the repair work is “an ongoing battle.”

“We do our best with two crews to repair them daily. As soon as we repair them, another part of them can go out. It may not stay repaired,” Gerull said, adding, “it is a deteriorating system.”

“My hope is that we can actually systematically figure out how to bring these things into the dawn of the 21st century, and that, of course, is going to require time and money,” Peskin said.

While demand for the call boxes has decreased, in part due to the emergence of cellphones, the Fire Department supports preserving the emergency call box system or some other form of it incorporating newer technologies.

“We absolutely feel that having street boxes available to our citizens and to our firefighters is a redundant system but it is a tool that we see is useful,” said Assistant Deputy Chief Anthony Rivera.

Pulled alarms send a signal to the Department of Emergency Services Fire Dispatch Center at 1011 Turk St.

Of the 2,581 pulls in 2017, 106 of them were for valid calls, or 4.1 percent. In 2012, there were 6,380 pulls with 165 valid calls.

Between 2012 and 2017, 41 percent of the 839 total valid calls were for emergency services, and 23 percent were for service calls like “person in distress, water problem, leaks, smoke/odor, animal problem.”

Gerull said they plan to launch a study of the system, which could look at if its needed or whether it is perhaps needed only in certain areas.

It will also look at the use of other technologies, such as wireless, solar-powered or fiber-optic cables. The department has requested $1.35 million as part of next year’s capital planning budget to modernize the alarm box technologies.

“We will complete a study and pilot technologies before a plan is developed for the modernization,” Gerull said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner.

However, time is seemingly of the essence. The City’s lease with AT&T expires in 2021.

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