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Fire equipment rings bell

April 21, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Two pieces of historic fire prevention equipment stored in a dusty storage space in Hagerstown City Hall are now on display in a South Potomac Street storefront window.

Justin Mayhue, a captain with the Hagerstown Fire Department, said he hopes the equipment will eventually be a part of a city firefighting museum.

"Most people wouldn't have a clue what this is," Mayhue said Wednesday afternoon, looking at one piece of the city's history.

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Fire department volunteers had wheeled a heavy metal contraption out of City Hall onto the sidewalk. Gears, pulleys and metal bars made the piece of equipment look like an oversized clock or sewing machine.

The mechanism was a vital part of the city's firefighting system for much of the 20th century. It would ring large bells as part of the city's fire alert system.

Now on display in the window at 31 S. Potomac St. are the bell ringer and another piece of the city's Gamewell alarm system, named after the businessman and inventor who spread the use of the alarm systems in the late 1800s, Mayhue said.

The bell ringer originally was in the city's Western Enterprise Fire Co. house. The brass contraption was rigged to the alarm system and would ring a bell atop the firehouse, calling firefighters to emergencies. A similar piece of equipment still exists above City Hall, although it no longer functions.

The other piece of equipment is a switching instrument called a repeater that transferred electronic signals from fire alarm boxes throughout the city to the bells and horns at the city fire halls.

At the South Potomac Street address, next to the city fire department's First Hose Company, Mayhue and others have collected several other fire department artifacts, including other Gamewell system pieces and a pump cart built in 1823 that was used in Hagerstown.

William Dieterich, a retired city employee and former city firefighter, was helping to collect some of the items from City Hall on Wednesday and move them down the street to the fire hall.

"It lets people see some of our history and see how things were done in the past. ... I'm a historian and don't like to see things tossed aside," Dieterich said.

Dieterich is one of the few people who might be able to get the Gamewell pieces running properly for display in the eventual museum, Mayhue said. Deiterich, now retired, once ran the fire alarm system when he was in charge of the city's signal department.

Mayhue said the pieces of equipment might appear old, but the system served the city through the 1970s, and at least one of the Gamewell system fire boxes still is in service.

Advances in technology have slowly made the system obsolete.

"We went from bells to pagers," Mayhue said. "So what's next?"

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