Fire Department

Fire Communications
the Electrical Bureau


To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the above-mentioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little. Through most of these years the Fire Department worked hand in hand with the City's Electrical Bureau, the men of which have gone, to the best of my knowledge, completely unrecognized for well over 110 years.

That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the website.

The years 1864-18731912-1928, 1929-1950, and 1980-1990 are presented on other webpages.

For profiles of individual fire fighters of years gone by, go to the Camden Fire Department Uniformed Personnel Index or to the Interesting People of Camden web-page.

Please contact me with any comments, questions, or corrections.... and I'm always happy to add further information about the people and event described here. Books have limited space. This website has unlimited space!

This page was first set up in November of 2008. Pictures will be added soon.

Phil Cohen
Camden NJ

Philadelphia Inquirer - October 18, 1889

Robert Bender - Engine Company 2

Philadelphia Inquirer - December 4, 1907


The old "double action" box required the user to break the glass, turn the valve-key t, the door and then pull the hook downward. New single action boxes were installed citywide in 1966.

The Evolution of Fire Communications


Fire Dispatcher's Hat Badge

Fire Communications in the City of Camden was originally and for many years the responsibility of the Electric Bureau. Electrical alarms first appeared in the City in the 1800s. John W. Kelly Jr., James A. Howell, and Michael Speno all served at one time or another as Superintendent of the Bureau, which was reorganized (and renamed Fire Communications) in 1963. The Electrical Bureau was placed within the Public Works Department. With Fire and Police communications having transitioned to radio, and the street fire boxes being taken out of service, the Electrical Bureau's primary mission is the maintenance and repair of the city's many traffic signals, and electrical services in its public buildings.

Prior to 1955, the Department did not have the services of two-way radio communications. Units that left the firehouse in response to alarms, remained out of service until they returned to quarters. Upon arriving at the scene, companies would have to contact the Fire Dispatcher via residential tele­phone or from the nearest alarm box. At the scene of serious fires, the Chief would dispatch his aide to the nearest street box to transmit a second alarm or special calls via a telegraph key inside the box. A preliminary signal of two taps followed by the box number would summon a second alarm and three taps for a third alarm.

Fire Alarm Dispatcher Michael A. Mignona
is seen working
the PBX Fire Board
on the eighth floor of
City Hall.

Circa 1940.

The preliminary signal known as the three threes would transmit a general alarm for the entire Department except for the far regions of East Camden and Cramer Hill. For all boxes east of the Cooper River, a preliminary signal known as the two threes would transmit a modified general alarm response summoning a lesser number of units. Telegraph Signal 2- 3121 would transmit a second alarm for Box 3121 at Collings and Atlanta Roads, Fairview. Signal 3-416 would summon a third alarm to Box 416 at 2nd and Pine Streets; Signal 4-393 would transmit a fourth alarm for Box 393 at Front and Mt. Vernon Streets; Signal 3-3-3-95 would transmit a general alarm for 95 at Broadway and Clinton Streets; and Signal 3-3-253 would transmit general alarm east of the Cooper River for Box 253 at 34th Street and Fremont Avenue, East Camden. Special Calls for individual units were transmitted from the field by alarm box telegraph key. Five taps would indicate an engine; six taps a hook & ladder; seven taps a chief; eight taps a hose or chemical company; and nine taps a fuel wagon. The preliminary signal of ten taps would indicate a special call followed by the type of unit needed, the level of the alarm, and finally the box number. Signal 10-6-4-181 would special call an additional company on the fourth Alarm to Box 181 at Point and York Streets, North Camden. The Aide would tap the telegraph key ten times followed by a pause, followed by six taps and a pause, followed by four taps and a pause, followed by one tap with a pause, eight taps and a pause, and finally one more tap to complete the box number. The Fire Alarm Dispatcher would decipher this signal and transmit the special call via telephone to the assigned unit.

On April 4, 1942, the Police and Fire Departments announced a cooperative venture whereby a police car would respond to every fire alarm to provide rapid radio communications. Later in 1955, police radios would be installed in all Chief's vehicles, and by 1961 every apparatus in the Department would be equipped with mobile radio communications on a dedicated fire frequency

Upon acquiring a dedicated radio frequency, the Department adopted for use a series of radio code signals intended to promote brevity in voice communications. Each signal by definition identified the type of alarm received or the unit status of responding companies. When the dispatcher announced the ONE-ONE Signal, responding units were directed to return to quarters. The ONE-THREE Signal indicated a false alarm and the ONE-FOUR Signal a mistaken alarm. The most commonly used codes concerned the most frequently occurring incidents. A Signal TWO-FOUR was announced for structural fires; the TWO-SEVEN Signal for vehicles; a TWO-EIGHT for outside rubbish fires and the TWO-NINE for grass. When units made themselves available for service, they transmitted a Signal FIVE-TWO and when they went out of service for administrative purposes, the FIVE-ONE Signal was announced. And when units acknowledged receipt of radio messages, they responded by stating TEN-FOUR. In later years, the system of signals would be abandoned in favor of conventional language communications.

 Before the days of radio communications, fire alarms in the City of Camden were transmitted to fire companies in two ways. Department telephone for still alarms; and over the primary and secondary circuits using gong and register to transmit box alarms. The term "Fire Board" originated from the old PBX switchboard that served as the principal piece of communications equipment in the fire alarm central office for use in dispatching fire companies. The dispatcher would plug the PBX jack into the switchboard to call the appropriate firehouse. A long slow ring was used for non-emergency calling. A series of short fast rings known as the "jingle" was used to alert the Housewatchman of an incoming alarm.

 Prior to the adoption of the automated Gamewell transmitter, Boxes transmitted over the primary circuit by manual telegraph key. A four round transmission for Box 396 required seventy-two "blows" on the joker key to transact the alarm. Indeed in some cities where Box 9990 was manually transmitted over the primary circuit, the telegraph key was punched one hundred and forty-eight times. Experienced Fire Dispatchers became quite proficient in manual telegraph operations. Following mechanical automation, the Gamewell transmitter on both the primary and secondary circuits did much of the work for attending dispatchers, but posed some special demands not previously associated with manual operations.

All fire companies in the City of Camden maintained a unit status board that "kept score" of the availability of all companies citywide. When a Box was released over the automated transmitter to firehouses, the Housewatchman would decipher the incoming signal, reference the index file to determine the location of the Box and the company assigned, and then consult the status board. If the first alarm companies were out of service or operating elsewhere, second alarm units would automatically respond to fill out the first alarm, As units became available, the dispatcher notified each firehouse by telephone to change the status board accordingly. For example if Box 396 was transmitted, the first alarm units would turnout. If the dispatcher sent out the same Box a second time, particularly within a short period of time following the first transmission, the status board would of course show the first alarm units already committed and this subsequent transmission would routinely be trued as a second alarm for that Box.

Until the mid 1960's the Camden Fire Department utilized a telegraph circuit to transmit box alarms to houses. The Fire Dispatcher upon receiving an alarm for a full assignment response would "load up" the box on the Gamewell gong and register circuits and punch the transmission key. The gong circuit to every firehouse would strike the designated box number while the register circuit would punch out the corresponding number on paper tape. The Fire Fighter assigned to housewatch duty would decipher the signal and pull the proper alarm assignment card from file to see how his company was due at the fire. Shown here with corresponding register tape, #1426 was an inside special building box for the Walt Whitman Hotel, Broadway & Cooper Streets. As a target hazard, a third-due Engine and Rescue Company were assigned to respond on the First Alarm, also with inflated assignments on 2nd and 3rd Alarms. The assignment card also required the automatic relocation of Engine Company 10 on the Third Alarm for transfer of quarters to Engine 8.

During peak periods of high fire activity when the dispatcher was holding many as five and six Boxes preparing to transmit each one in successive order, the automated transmitter demanded special attention. If the previous Box was not cleared from the transmitter, the dispatcher ran the risk of erroneously sending it out a second time, especially if distracted. Fire Dispatchers were taught to religiously exercise the sequential method of SET-DUMP-CLEAR" for every alarm transaction. The numerical identity of the Box would be set up on the transmitter; the transmission key would be punched to dump the Box from the transmitter on to the circuit; and after four rounds were completed, the clearance key would be depressed clearing the automated transmitter for the next alarm. The erroneous transmission of the same Box for a second time was not a concern under the old manual system as dispatchers processed each individual alarm by telegraph key with virtu­ally no chance of redundant error. Indeed, some improvements in technology did not come without additional demands. In any event, by 1968 the adoption of a hard wire voice alarm and radio communications as the principal means for transmitting alarms, supplanted the use of gong and register circuits.. 

The old Fire Alarm Room on the eighth floor of City Hall. Fire Captain Philip Farrow as Chief Dispatcher is seated at the main radio position. Station KEG-405 was the original frequency designation for Camden fire radio. Pictured in left background , the old Gamewell circuit panels for the citywide fire alarm box system. Circa 1965.


THE ELECTRICAL BUREAU: Frank Fahr, Mike Speno, John Smith, Bo Jones, Paul Moll, Noah Johnson, Frank Caprice, Ray Hoffman.


Installing new street boxes in the Fairview section, January 1966. (in foreground) Michael Speno, Superintendent of the Electrical Bureau with members of the "cable gang" (at left) Lineman John R. Smith and Foreman Bo Jones


From the telegraph key and the PBX Board of the 1940s, to the computer CAD system and the radio technology of the 1990s, the mission of Fire Alarm Dispatch­ers has remained unchanged. The efficient and timely movement of Fire Companies remain the hallmark of fire alarm operations. The frantic atmosphere of the old fire alarm central office amid noise, bells and men running to find available fire compa­nies to dispatch, relocate or direct, has been replaced by 21st Century technology where the environment is noticeably quiet but no less pressing. Pictured in the new Fire & EMS Communications Center for Camden County is Fire Dispatcher Mike Almony at the radio console while Supervising Fire Dispatcher Alex Hendry verifies a phone alarm. Spring 1995.

Paul Moll & Noah Johnson t Broadway & Federal Street
Circa 1960

Mike Speno in the test panel room

J.R. Smith


Mike Speno




Control Cab - May 3, 2002

Control Cab - May 3, 2002


Bob Garish

Dan Mayfield

Camden Courier-Post * May 1, 1933