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Fire boxes snuffed out?

With telephones just about everywhere these days, the red pull boxes that make up historic downtown Grass Valley’s fire alarm system are somewhat impractical, fire officials say.

“Why would someone run out of their house, run across the street and pull the box when they could just dial 911?” said Fire Chief Hank Weston.

It is now up to the Grass Valley City Council to decide whether it’s time to retire the 160 boxes, some of which don’t work anymore. Some might be kept as historic icons, with the others sold to help finance the restoration of the old Race Street fire station into a museum. The money also could help refurbish an antique fire truck.



The proceeds could be as much as $30,000, Weston said, with potential buyers being “anybody who is a fire department buff. They are collectors items.”

On the other hand, the City Council could opt to keep the system that has been in place since 1951. If council members choose this route, they would need to upgrade it at a cost of about $25,000. They could replace and modernize the system, which could cost about $500,000.




Problems with the current system and lack of use are what prompted Weston to bring the issue to the City Council tonight. Overgrown foliage, juvenile pranks, inebriated jokesters and old wires with thin insulation have plagued the system in its old age.

The system is also expensive to keep up. Parts are tough to find, and repairing some of the broken alarm boxes would come with a high price. But Weston said he will do whatever the City Council decides.

Nevada City’s City Council faced a similar decision a few years ago when its fire department brought a similar choice before the council. Instead of decommissioning the boxes, however, council members opted to spend the money to fix them.

This amounted to about $70,000, said Nevada City firefighter Kevin Cartzdafner. Since then, while the maintenance costs for the system remain low each year, “we haven’t had one fire call yet,” he said.

The Nevada City Fire Department does receive about one or two prank calls each month – similar to Grass Valley. In an effort to deter these types of calls, the fire department puts a little paste on the box that shows up with a black light.

A call from an alarm box gets directed to the old fire station on Broad Street rather than the station on Providence Mine Road. Firefighters must get information from the Broad Street station on which alarm box was activated.

This may have been efficient at a time when most of the firefighters in both Grass Valley and Nevada City were volunteers and there was no 911 emergency system, but nowadays the stations are staffed, Weston said.

“I think it is a wonderful historic attribute; however, in terms of using it, it may be counterproductive,” said Nevada City City Manager Mark Miller. “But it is not my expertise.”


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