HOUSE OF ALARM BELLS
Fire Boxes Lead in Jangling Chorus
More bells ring in a small tan building at  Turk and Octavia streets than any other place in town.
Last year they rang more than ever. you have that on the word of Chief Fire Dispatcher Chester Balliette. His office, clearing house for the 1532 fire boxes in the city, handled 8917 fire alarms in the fiscal year ending June 30.
Figure that out. Thats more than one alarm for every hour in the yearday and night, week days, Sundays and holidays. Balliette shakes his gray thatched head and green eye visor to hammer home his point.
He has seen the number of fire alarms rise from about 3000 a year, when he entered the Department of Electricity 25 years ago, to the present all-time high.
And he is very definite about the fact that it is the Department of Electricity that runs the fire box system and theso-called Police Department radio station.
Balliette sits at a green movie-version city editors desk. Before him is an instrument panel, resembling to the uninitiated a transatlantic airplane dashboard. It is full of lights, switches, buzzers and any number of unintelligible things.
Any interview with this husky, powerfully built man of 55 is done between the ringing of two telephones and the general sounding off of incoming fire alarm bells, mysterious lights flicking on and off, the click-click of other equipment.
He sits on a large chair, mounted on well oiled casters.
Without effort he swings from one side of his desk to the other, broadcasting fire alarms over the police radio station; sending out fire box numbers to the fire stations; taking data on traffic signals that will not signal; listening to people trying to report a fire.
Most of the fire alarms are reported by private citizens over the telephone, 4875 out of 8917 last year.
When you pick up your telephone receiver and gasp, Give me the Fire Department, quick! you get Balliette or some of his assistants. (The office remains open 24 hours a day, the men working in eight-hour shifts.)
The veteran shakes his head at the way people report fires, but he sympathizes with their excitement. Maybe they have an invalid upstairs; maybe a lifetimes savings is going up in the fire, he says. Naturally they get befuddled.
They tell me everything about the fire, except where it is. They describe for me. They tell me that it is three doors from the corner, but wont say which corner.
When he gets a report, he swings to high right and his sensitive fingers begin pounding out the box number on a big brass key to the fire stations.
He has seen as many as seven fire boxes come in at the same time; but he and his assistant separate the bells, identify the box and notify the stations.
The increase in the number of fires he attributes to the gradual aging of the citys buildings. This years particular jump, he feels is due to the wet winter, growing more grass, thus causing more grass fires. June and July are the worst months each year. Last month heard 1118 fire alarms.
The fire alarm station is more than that. It houses the police short wave station and adjusters for each of the 654 traffic signals in the city.
The building itself is the last word in fireproofinga concrete and steel structure with no windows.
It has an auxiliary electrical system in the basement which would make possible operation of its equipment should the Pacific Gas and Electric cease operations for any reason.
A central fire alarm system was established in the [eighteen] sixties and has been going since. The present building was erected in 1915 and the system has constantly been improved.
Im sorry to interrupt you, says the reporter.
You cant interrupt me, answers the chief dispatcher. This work has to go on. He swings toward his brass key. He swings back to his telephone. He flicks a switch.
San Francisco Chronicle
July 11, 1937
See: Fire Alarm Operations in the 1870s