San Francisco looking into retrofitting red emergency call boxes

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When ABC7 News first did the story on these broken call boxes, no one in the city really knew how many were not working. (KGO-TV)

When we first did the story on these broken call boxes, no one in the city really knew how many were not working.

Today the Department of Technology which maintains them came up with the number.

There are 2,300 boxes throughout the city, and only 87 percent are currently working.

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin is leading the investigation. "This is not a game of gotcha. I'd like to understand why they are not working, what we need to do to bring them back to the dawn of the 21st century," asked Peskin during a hearing of the city's Public Safety Committee.

The simple answer is that they are really old, put in place in the 1860s using telegraph technology and copper wiring to send a message to the nearest fire station.

They were instrumental during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake when the power went out.

Today, the Department of Technology says there is only one provider of the necessary parts which are no longer being manufactured.

"You repair one part, it may not stay repaired, said Linda Gerull, Chief Information Officer of the Department of Technology.

When one breaks, the city puts a cover over the box alerting the public to call 9-11 instead.

But so many are in need of repair that crews ran out of covers, and began using the only equipment technicians had available, towels and tape.

RELATED: Uncovering the mystery of towels around SF fire callboxes

But now these orange plastic bags with the words "Not in Service," are being used instead.

In the past two years, there were more than 282-thousand calls made from those boxes. Less than 5 percent resulted in a valid emergency.

Still, the fire department acknowledges these boxes are an important part of the redundancy, built into the city's emergency system--when cell phones fail.

"Not all of the street box calls are for fires, some are for vehicular accidents, there could also be a call for medical attention," said Tony Rivera, Assistant Deputy Chief of the Fire Deparment.

The city doesn't want the boxes gone, instead they are looking into retrofitting them using either wireless, radio based or cellular communication, at an estimated cost of five to 6-thousand dollars per box.

"If you do the math it would be about 12 to 13 million dollars which is a big pill to swallow but we would do it over time," explained Peskin.

He promised to make this the city's 2018 project.

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