Disclaimer: This article has been written by a community member as part of TAPinto Livingston's new "Livingston History" section. Residents are encouraged to submit similar articles, photos or story ideas related to the history of Livingston Township to dsantola@tapinto.net. 

LIVINGSTON, NJ — When the Livingston Fire Department was formed in 1921, Livingston was a very rural town with small clusters of houses spread out across the community.

The first year or so, the men were only equipped with some rubber boots and twelve water filled fire extinguishers purchased by the Livingston Township Committee. Getting the new group to respond to actual fires presented a huge challenge at the time. There was no firehouse, no cell phones, no firetrucks, no electronic paging systems, or air horns.

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The first effort at a fire alarm alert system was a series of 12 steel ring mounts on stands. These rings were actual steel railroad track rails bent into large circles and were spread throughout the community. 

When a fire was detected, residents would run to the closest ring and begin hitting it with a sledgehammer. When others nearby heard the alarm, they too would run to a nearby ring and begin hitting it, and eventually the whole town would know there was a fire.

The original ring that was sounded for a call would continue to be struck so firefighters could eventually locate where to respond. Only two remain: one in front of Livingston Fire Headquarters, and another at the Force Homestead.

This was not a very efficient way to alert the fire department, but it was all they had at the time, which likely led to most fires resulting in total losses. However, within just two years, electric sirens were mounted on the roof of several firefighters’ homes and on top of the first firehouse, which was built in 1923 and located in what is now the rear parking lot of fire headquarters. The sirens worked to some degree, but could not be heard by the entire department, with many calls resulting in a minimal response and still the men had no idea where the fire was.

In 1937, the township finally installed a series of sirens, mounted on poles throughout town, which would be used as an alerting system for firefighters. This system replaced the metal rings and roof sirens, used for many years and was a welcome change.

A Federal Electric Alarm Box mounted at Livingston Police Headquarters enabled dispatchers to place a specific ring into the alarm mechanism before sounding the sirens. Each metal ring contained a different series of teeth, each of which resulted in a distinct sound pattern, much like Morse code, when utilized in the system. Each ring represented a different part of town; and the sound pattern not only alerted firefighters, but also directed them where to go.

This system, later utilized for various Civil Defense drills during World War II, was not always reliable and would eventually be replaced by air horns.

In 1946, an air horn alerting system was installed atop Livingston headquarters station, which would eventually replace the patterned siren notification system. Firemen Charles Schilling and Frank Fairchild installed heavy steel tanks, which would supply the compressed air needed to activate the horn. The same system would later be installed in the Northfield Ave. and Livingston Circle stations during construction in the 1950s. 

The air horn alerting system, still in operation today, simply rang three times, directing members to respond to the stations where they would be dispatched to the call by telephones connected to Livingston Police Headquarters.

Upon the return of the last truck, one quick air blast was sounded, known as “Back Taps,” to let everyone know that the department was back in their stations and heading home.

This was later supplemented with telephone bell systems installed in every fireman’s home, which rang when the air horns were activated. The “Fire Bells,” as they were known, ensured that if the air horn was not heard or did not activate, firefighters would be notified by the bell.

In recent decades, all firefighters have been supplied electronic pagers, which they carry around the clock. The pagers are activated whenever the air horns are sounded for General Alarms (larger emergencies and confirmed fires).

Air horns are not sounded for individual Engine Companies for smaller emergencies. Police dispatchers announce the nature and location of the call, and firefighters respond.

Known for decades as the “Six O’clock Whistle,” the sounding of the air horns each night at 6 p.m. in Livingston is a test of the alert system. Each night when the horn is activated, the pagers for the Livingston Fire Department and the Livingston First Aid Squad are activated as well.

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