Judge Strikes Down City Plan to Deactivate Fire Alarm Call Boxes

The city's plan to dismantle its 130-year-old fire alarm call box system was dealt a blow Monday when a federal judge ruled the plan discriminated against the deaf and hearing impaired.

City lawyers argued that it would save some $6 million in its first fiscal year, if it was allowed to dismantle its 15,000 call boxes. They also said the system was plagued with false alarms that endangered the lives of fire fighters and that most residents seeking help used cell phones and landlines.

But the city was sued by a group of deaf and hearing impaired residents who said they relied on the fire alarm boxes to make emergency calls. In 1997, a judge handed down an injunction against the city.

In its motion to dismiss the injunction, the city countered they could use public pay phones combined with a "tapping protocol" to indicate whether the deaf or hearing impaired needed help. In his ruling, Judge Robert Sweet of Federal District Court said that wasn't good enough. He wrote that public pay phones are unreliable.

"This decision is a life saving ruling which preserves their ability to summon fire, police and medical emergency services from the street," said Robert Stulberg, a partner at Broach and Stulberg, the firm representing the plaintiffs. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Disability Law Clinic at Syracuse Law School also joined the action.

An attorney for the city, Jonathon Pines, said the city was considering its appellate options.

"We are disappointed that the Court, in denying our motion, is requiring the Fire Department to maintain a street alarm box system, at a cost of many millions of dollars a year, that has been all but abandoned by the public," Pines said.

But some experts said instead of trying to shut down the fire alarm boxes, the city should instead modernize the system. For one thing, during a large scale emergency, cell phones might not work.

"We like to think we're immune from any problems," said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor for Fire Science at John Jay College. "But our most modern technologies come with a price, and come with a potential for failure."