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Sound The Alarm: Roughly One-Third Of City's Fire Alarm Boxes Cannot Be Used

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In the era of smartphones and texting, the city's fire alarm boxes might seem to be relics of the past, but they are still the fastest way to call for help. However, thousands of them appear to not be in working order, putting the lives of New Yorkers at risk. NY1's Arlene Borenstein filed the following exclusive report.

Fire alarm boxes can be found on streets all over the city, and they come in two varieties. The older ones have a handle to pull, and fire units responds immediately, while the new, push-button models connect users directly to a fire dispatcher.

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley of Queens says fire alarm boxes are still faster than using the phone, and in the critical moments of a medical or fire emergency, the boxes can mean the difference between life and death.

"There's no plan to fix those call boxes anytime soon and that's the frustration that I have," Crowley said. "If you push the fire button, you'll go directly to a fire dispatcher, you'll save processing time. If you were to call 911 first, they would take all your information, process it, then send it to a fire dispatcher."

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano confirmed last week that many of the boxes are not working, mainly due to Hurricane Sandy.

"I think it's about a third of them are out of service. And that means a lot less than that, but they've gone up because of the storm," Cassano said.

The president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association tells NY1 there are nearly 15,000 boxes throughout all the boroughs, which means if one-third are out, then nearly 5,000 are not working.

Some Astoria residents were alarmed by the number, and one told NY1, "There is a concern here and a big problem."

Cassano counters the boxes are hardly ever used and most of the time they send fire units out unnecessarily.

"A little over 2 percent of alarms come in are through pull boxes, and 96 percent of those calls are false alarms," the commissioner said.

Yet one resident told NY1 it is better to be safe than sorry.

"Because you never know. You never know, you might need to use one, one day," the New Yorker said.

According to federal safety regulations, the fire alarm boxes must remain and be in working order. In the second part of "Sound The Alarm," NY1 will show how the FDNY is responding to the problem.

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