Uncovering the mystery of towels around San Francisco fire call boxes

Lyanne Melendez Image
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
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These defective boxes with the mystery towel can be found in every neighborhood in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Is this a prank?

That's probably the first thing that comes to mind when you see a towel wrapped around a fire call box, held by electrical tape. These defective boxes with the mystery towel can be found in every neighborhood in San Francisco.

"I have no idea what it is, but I'm not comfortable with it there, " said San Francisco resident Joe Seidler, who ran into one of them on the corner of California and Larkin streets.

So, why a dish towel? Why not put up a sign warning people? We asked people that on Tuesday.

"You've never worked for the city," said Francis Ambrosi, as he was laughing.

City workers from the Department of Technology were supposed to cover the broken call boxes with custom-made bags. But they ran out of them.

That department emailed this statement:

"In the abundance of caution to keep residents from trying to use out-of-service boxes, the only equipment the technicians had available were towels and tape which they used to wrap the boxes."

The boxes still use the old 19th-century telegraph technology sending a message to the nearest fire station. The Department of Technology maintains all 2,040 of them. They were instrumental during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

"I don't know why they're not talking about this issue because San Francisco prides itself on redundancy in the case of an emergency," said President of the San Francisco Firefighters Union Tom O'Conner. "The San Francisco boxes are part of that redundancy when cellphones go down, if power goes out, there is still a way to call for help," he said.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin was so surprised to find out about these faulty fire call boxes that he promised to conduct a hearing at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

"And the fact that they are not working is disturbing. I've put in a call to the department that is in charge of them and we're going to get to the bottom of it and we're going to fix it, " said Peskin.

Part of the problem is that these fire pull boxes use copper cabling that is more 100 years old.