ALARM LAMP, Flushing

by Kevin Walsh

I’ve discussed these fire alarm indicator lamps before — Forgotten NY has been around now for 22 years as of 2021 — but I never get tired of featuring them, even now that they have been decommissioned for over a decade and are no longer serviced. In the 1960s, they ceded their industry standard to much shorter, J-shaped masts that were deployed on telephone poles and masts alike.

These scrolled masts were at one time seen in NYC by the thousands on side streets, supporting radial-wave incandescent lamps. Notice that in this E.E. Rutter photo on Astoria Boulevard in 1933, the scroll is on the top of the mast to make way for the fire alarm indicator, which was made with a red glass globe. Later, orange plastic globes replaced them and finally, the shorter oblong reflectors seen today.

In some cases, though, a lengthier mast was used and some of those could not support an additional fire alarm light. In those cases, there was an additional scrolled mast to support the fire alarm light. In the 1950s, when the finned masts we see today on telephone poles were introduced, in some cases the existing scrolled mast with the fire alarm lamp was retained in place, and serviced for over 4 decades. However, most telephone poles in the vicinity of the fire alarm received the newer J-shaped bracket.

I’m always fascinated to spot a scrolled mast still in place, especially one with the plastic reflector disc (that was illuminated by a small incandescent bulb) still there. When I moved to 43rd Avenue in Flushing in 1993, there were two of them on the avenue nearby; this one is on 161st Street.

Seen less frequently is the shorty fire alarm bracket. These never supported street lighting; they were always used to hold fire alarm indicators. They could be found on telephone poles and also, more rarely, on pillars supporting elevated trains. This one is by Flushing Cemetery at 46th avenue and 167th Street, near Louis Armstrong’s gravesite. I’d say fewer than a dozen of these shorty brackets can still be found in the five boroughs.

Over a decade ago, these lamps were decommissioned and replaced by red “top hat” alarm indicators that mount directly on the main streetlamp fixture. In my opinion, that’s a bad place for them, but both the main light and the fire alarm light can be controlled by the same circuit. Also, I have a feeling the Department of Transportation was running out of the small incandescent bulbs that the older alarm lamps required.

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Al Tz May 18, 2021 - 5:44 am

It seemed to me that the fire alarm indicator lamps were placed on an intersection corner different from the actual Fire Alarm Box. Reason may have been, at a distance, if you couldn’t see one – chances are you’d see the other.

S. Saltzman June 1, 2021 - 3:23 pm

The fire alarm lights were switched to the led cylinders because of the radically reduced maintenance costs. The led’s are supposed to last 80,000 to 120,000 hours before depreciating to 70 per cent of their initial lumen output.( Annual burn time on a photoelectric control is about 4200 hours).
During 1981, I noticed that only the top 2/3 of the orange fire alarm globes was illuminated. I couldn’t figure out what the City had done to produce this effect. Then I encountered a street light pole that had been tapped by a vehicle, resulting in the orange globe being knocked off. The City had installed a 7 watt compact fluorescent lamp with a ballast adapter in each fire alarm light. The standard incandescent lamp previously used was a 32 watt, 3,000 hour multiple street light bulb. This cut the energy use for each fire alarm lamp by almost 70 per cent. The difference of 20 watts may not seem like a great amount, but I believe at that time there were about 16,000 fire alarm lights. The greater savings was in maintenance. Because of the 3,000 hour life of the 32 watt incandescent lamp, each fire alarm fixture was”group relamped” twice a year. The more than 10,000 hour life of the 7 watt compact fluorescent allowed group relamping about every three years.
People may recall the 90’s when funds were short, the City didn’t relamp the fire alarm lights. Because the 7 watt compact fluorescent lamps contain a starter, as they approached the end of their life they would blink on and off until they failed.
Many of the original fire alarm lights have lost their globes, and it is possible to see the ballast adapters and the fluorescent lamps where the vandals haven’t broken them.

Randy T. October 30, 2021 - 8:18 pm

So apparently I have just stumbled into one of these alarm light brackets sans the globe and I would love to make it complete. Are there resources as to where I might find one outside of the ever present ebay?


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