The Story of Fire Alarms in New Zealand

This began as an account about fire alarms in New Zealand. But it soon became a story about the surprising number of New Zealanders who invented fire alarm systems, manufactured them and marketed them – some internationally. Their inventiveness at the cutting edge of telegraphy, chemistry, physics and electrics secured patents for innovative systems which contributed much to fire protection in their native New Zealand and around the globe.

The History

The means of giving alarms of fire began with the fire bell, the church bell, the nightwatchman’s rattle and the human voice… shouting! Thus the community rallied together with the local fire brigade to help save the occupants and to quell the blaze. These age-old systems meant that the fire had to show itself – flames piercing a roof, or smoke billowing through streets – before a night watchman or a patrolling policeman could race to the nearest bell and pull on the rope.

In the mid to late-1800s there were two advances in technology which would change this. First there was a better understanding of physics… specifically, the changes in metals and liquids when they are heated and, second, the emergence of telegraphy, including the telephone. Subsequent Inventions harnessed both, combining them to transform the way fire would be detected and the alarm raised.

First Street Fire Alarms

The first advance was to localise the means of giving an alarm and this was the work in 1852 of  William Francis Channing and Moses G, Farmer of Boston, Massachusetts who developed the first street fire alarm system. It comprised a transmitter in a wooden box attached to wires strung along  telegraph poles throughout Boston, which, when someone cranked a handle within the box, a current was sent via the wires to the fire station. There the code was translated to reveal the location of the box and a fire engine dispatched. The pair patented their invention, the “Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities” in 1854 which they sold to John Gamewell whose Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co. took over the business. The system was not only deployed in street alarms, it was just as easily installed in public buildings and factories. Its theory continues today, though much refined by other companies – Gamewell, however, survives as part of the international Honeywell corporation.

First Automatic Fire Alarms

In 1890, American physicist Francis Robbins Upton invented the first automatic electrical fire alarm system. The system, although innovative for its day, was often overlooked perhaps because the Patents Office mis-spelt the name of the invention – “Portable Electric Tire Alarm”.

Francis Robbins Upton

Upton perfected  the system with Thomas Edison, with whom he worked on other life-changing inventions. The patented system operated when a thermostatic coil detects rising temperatures due to smoke or fire. Once an abnormal temperature is reached a closed circuit is created with a magnet and a bell is rung to alert people. The inventors stated in their application for a patent, granted in 1890,  “our object is to produce an alarm complete in itself, simple in construction without complicated circuits and which shall not require constant attention”.

The stage was set for development of fire alarm systems.


  • What if fires could be detected in their incipient stages before flames could be seen shooting out the roof?
  • And, immediately fire is detected, could a fire alarm bell or siren be made to automatically alert occupants of the building?
  • Better still, could a system detect a fire, ring the bells – and also send a message to the fire station, summoning the brigade?
  • And then, how about if the system could advise the exact location of the fire within the complex or building? This would enable firefighters to go straight to the seat of the blaze.
  • Could a system be invented which would activate when smoke was detected?
  • Ultimately, would it be possible for a system
    • to recognise a developing fire detected by heat or smoke,
    • advise its location in a complex,
    • automatically begin dousing the blaze with water while at the same time
    • alerting the occupants and transmitting a message to the fire station?…
    • … and be fail-safe, reliable, dependable with built-in redundancy?

The answer to all these scenarios was “yes, after decades-long developments which began around the 1860s.

The Systems

Inventors, using the theory that metals expand when heated, found for instance that a thin wire would melt through, snap, and break a circuit which triggered a switch that set bells ringing – or activated another means of warning. Similarly, heat that melted a glass stopper in a pipe would allow the water under pressure to escape, dousing the flames – the sprinkler system.

With the advancement of telegraphy it was just a matter of course to add wires to the various systems which, simultaneous with the alarm, sent a message to the fire station summoning the brigade. Refinements: some simple, others complex, enabled the location of the fire to be pinpointed.

Cause for Alarm!

Auckland civic authorities and the fire brigade were disappointed with a system of street fire alarms installed in 1882. They had purchased the British “Bright’s Patent System”, sold to them by an agent in London as “the best there is, second to none, recommended by Captain Shaw of London Fire Brigade”.

Charles Tiltson Bright, a British telegraph engineer, invented or improved a wide range of electrical and mechanical devices, specialising in resistance and insulation: his reputation was made supervising the manufacture and laying of some of the first submarine telegraphic cables.

Charles T Bright. Wikipedia

In Auckland his fire alarm system did not match the agent’s superlative claims nor Captain Shaw’s recommendation:

  • The telegraphic system – the way alarms were transmitted by overhead lines – was subject to line breaks
  • The mechanism inside the alarm box sometimes malfunctioned
  • Any malfunction had to be fixed by a technician who had to visit the box involved
  • It was out of action until re-set
  • The temptation to “break the glass and press the button” was too much for larrikins
  • Despite “Directions for Use” posted on each alarm, people, in their panic, misused the alarm
  • The receiving equipment at the fire station sometimes failed

These problems resulted in increasing numbers of false alarms for the fire brigade and, occasionally, missed calls to real fires. Within months of installing the system the City Council, dismayed with the shortcomings, wanted out. It sold the system for a nominal 5 shillings (50c) to the government Post and Telegraph Department which, looking for improvement, took over and overhauled all the equipment. But the problems continued. A City Councillor called the system “no better than a toy” while another called it “a costly nuisance”. By 1886 the Fire Brigade, despairing of the number of false callouts – especially the malicious alarms – had the street fire alarms disconnected. Insurers and fire protection interests looked for the development of better systems. Their wait was delayed by more pressing requirements urged by World War One which began in 1914. And then, unexpectedly… local inventions.

The Inventors        

The story of the development of the fire alarm belongs, very much, to New Zealand inventors who obtained patents for the systems they pioneered. And it was not a case of “patent and disappear” – their inventions were developed, manufactured, widely-sold… and patented in many countries around the world.

Castle and White

This Auckland pair, Frank Castle and C. F. White worked up an improved fire alarm system designed to be installed to protect buildings, applying for patents for their inventions in 1901 and 1908. They trialled the first version in city premises showing that, by selecting different washers in the equipment, varying temperature could be chosen at which point the alarm would activate, ringing a bell. 96 degrees C was chosen, at which point during the trial the system triggered. Nothing more, beyond the patent application in 1908, was heard of the invention.


Pearson Fire Alarm Company was a UK entity that patented systems in England in the late 1890s, perfecting them by the early 1900s sufficient that leading industrialists recognised the benefits and installed the automatic alarms in their works, mills and factories.  A successful, practical demonstration in Bristol in 1904 enhanced the Pearson brand. There were further installations, and  some “good saves” resulted in proof of their value detecting an incipient fire. In 1906 the insurance industry responded to the Pearson Company’s campaign, the underwriters agreeing for the first time agreeing that those policy-holders who had installed automatic fire alarms were entitled to a rebate on the cost of their fire insurance premiums.

Pearson detector head, 1907. Science Museum

Pearson’s system was installed in New Zealand. Penrose’s new department store in Dunedin, which opened in 1915, was fitted throughout with the latest version of the “British Pearson Automatic System”, connected directly with the Central Fire Station.

Pemrose’s Department Store. Electric lights, plate glass windows… and an automatic fire alarm. Otago Witness.

In 1911 the Pearson company merged with May Oatway Fire Alarm Co to form Associated Fire Alarms Limited, going on to develop even more sophisticated fire detectors. The merged company was eventually subsumed in 1969 by EMI.

May and Oatway

In Dunedin, a mechanical electrician, Charles Edward May, refined apparatus for giving alarms of fire, gaining a patent in 1899. Further developed, the system was well-accepted, and May partnered with George Henry Oatway to take it further. By detecting heightened temperatures it set off alarm bells and advised the local fire station and, in addition, had an ingenious system of flaps just inside the premise’s windows which dropped down so firefighters, on their arrival, could see the location of the fire.

Advertisement for May-Oatway

Their May-Oatway system was installed in many New Zealand premises… and after Oatway went on a sales trip to the United Kingdom it was purchased by many commercial and corporate customers, including some of the biggest Town Halls and Council buildings in England. The system was said to be in use “…throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond”, the rights for which were later sold to the Vigilant Fire Alarm Company, latterly Tyco Companies and now the Johnson Group.

George Gallagher

In 1905 Mr Gallagher gathered a number of prominent Aucklanders in premises in Lorne Street to show off his invention, a fire alarm system relying on a metal, which when heated, fused at 170 degrees F. (76 C). The Press reported the demonstration as “…an ingenious device by which a bell is set ringing upon the fusing of any one of a number of short lengths of this metal, which is placed at intervals along a continuous line of copper wire”. The system worked as Gallagher said it would, impressing Auckland’s Fire Chief Woolley who witnessed the invention, saying it was as good a fire alarm system as he had seen.

Edward Hope Kirkby

Kirkby was an Australian who invented and patented several fire alarm systems and in 1908 he unveiled his “improved apparatus for conveying an alarm from premises where sprinklers are installed to a distant station”  (the fire station).

Edward Hope Kirkby

It was the first sprinkler alarm for fire protection in Australia. Meanwhile his street fire alarm system had been installed in many towns and cities.

A Kirkby Street Fire Alarm box in Queen Street 1909. Auckland Libraries

This included Auckland which, in 1903, acquired 9 Kirkby street fire alarm circuits each catering for up to 8 boxes of the push-button type, and each providing some communication by telegraphic signals with the Watchroom at Central Station in Pitt Street. It cost an estimated £10,500 with additional expenditure over the years as more circuits were added. The boxes were periodically inspected and tested.

Testing an Auckland Kirkby box. Auckland Libraries

Kirkby’s devices were later made under licence by Wormald Brothers. The Australian’s other invention also improved lifestyles… in 1895 he built a fully operational X-Ray apparatus.

In 1907 the Auckland Fire Board inherited all fire brigade-related assets from the Auckland City Council, including the  fire alarm system. The inaugural Board immediately acknowledged the extra  effort and costs resulting from the high percentage of false alarms (35 out of a total of 156 calls).

Took over fire brigade assets from the City Council, 1907

In an effort to reduce the number, the Board decided to post signs above each alarm box warning the consequences of anyone caught giving a malicious alarm. It was thought a street-light installed above each alarm box would make them more readily identifiable at night, and also deter the nuisance of miscreants under the cover of darkness, but the City Council declined. In 1910 about three quarters of the 163 calls were given by fire alarm boxes, by then not confined to the streets but installed in office blocks, factories and department stores. They were largely replaced by the Duplex system in 1919/20 (see below).

James Percival Robertson

An Australian, he also held several patents for an improved fire alarm system which he demonstrated in Wellington in 1904, his “Auto-Telephonic Fire Alarm System”. It featured strips of a metallic compound installed along the ceiling within premises. Increased heat from a fire would cause a reaction through a thermostat… and the alarm would ring and a message sent to the fire station.

Ernest Moss

This Christchurch inventor put together a fire alarm system in the early 1900s that was installed by cities and towns as an improvement on older models. He patented his invention, The Simplex Fire Alarm, adopted right away by the Christchurch Fire Brigade and many others. It was an end-to-end set up: Moss had created the design and manufacture of the fire alarm boxes, or call points, as well as telegraphic requirements followed by the receiving equipment at Christchurch Fire Station. The system was installed in Christchurch’s new station in Lichfield Street just before it opened in 1913.

Simplex equipment at Christchurch Fire Station.
Steffano Webb Photographic – Alexander Turnbull Library

Despite other systems, with claims to better efficiency, the Simplex was still being purchased by Fire Boards into the 1940s, especially by those in Canterbury who wanted to “buy local”.

Simplex Street Fire Alarm. Christchurch
Christchurch Libraries

The system  had 24 closed circuits providing for 192 call points, all connected by about 60 miles (100kms) of wiring, including that in the receiving cabinet.

Thomas T. Hugo

He was a well-travelled and experienced fire officer. In 1901 he was Chief of Wellington Fire Brigade when he engineered a fire alarm system which was incorporated in the new fire station. Officially opening the premises, the Mayor praised Superintendent Hugo for the new equipment: in reply he said he had merely improved a system he had seen in the United States.

Fire Alarm receiving apparatus, Wellington Fire Station 1901. Auckland Libraries Collection

The system cost £450, consisting of 4 circuits with 31 call-points and an estimated eleven miles (17km) of wire.

Auckland : Time to Renew 1919

Auckland’s Fire Brigade Superintendent, William Wilson, recommended the replacement of existing fire alarms with the one system, Duplex. He said that there was a variety of systems in use in the city, and time to update with a uniform approach. He wanted to see the old – the likes of May-Oatway, Gravity, Kirkby and Simplex – replaced with a uniform, trouble-free and fool-proof system, Duplex, with receiving equipment at Central Fire Station upgraded accordingly. (Bill Wilson must have heard stories denigrating Auckland’s earlier street fire system with all its shortcomings; missed calls, interrupted lines and false alarms) ). “Like other centres”, he said, “we would have had Duplex earlier, but war-time upset our calculations”.

Work commenced on the Duplex replacements in July 1919, the system completed in May 1920.

 Geoffery Porter and Duplex 

Geoffry Porter was a mechanic/driver in Dunedin Fire brigade who, night after night, watched as the local Fire Chief fixed shortcomings with the city’s fire alarm system.

Geoffery Porter, Chief Motorman, Dunedin Brigade 1909. Hocken Collection

Porter figured a “better version”  would deploy two circuits, one earth-return making it more or less fool-proof. He developed what became the Duplex system, it was patented in 1915 and its street fire alarm boxes were installed throughout Dunedin.

“Duplex” street fire alarm. Motat

The Duplex Fire Alarm Company supplied numerous cities and towns in New Zealand and overseas with sales ramping after World War One. Auckland, which had been reluctant to get into street alarms after its earlier bad experiences, selected Duplex in 1919, the installation overseen by its inventor, G. Porter, who told the press at the time “one great advantage is that the fire-call is recorded in duplicate so that in the event of one portion of apparatus failing, it is also recorded by the other. And the system is self-indicating in regard to either broken wires, earth contacts, or both together”. The box itself had to stand up to all weathers as well as mischief-makers, so it was made of heavy cast-iron, usually bolted to a telegraph pole at about head height, and painted easily-visible bright red. In Auckland’s case some boxes supplied were personalised with “AFB” in the casting.

The innards of the box for the Duplex alarms supplied to Auckland were made under licence by Davies Shephard and Co of Melbourne, a firm that made water meters, telegraphic equipment and fittings for NSW railways. For the war effort they made torpedo components.

Duplex: the inside mechanism

The inside of the Duplex comprised the clockwork-driven mechanism which, when the button was pushed, a small “code wheel” was activated which caused “make and break” on two circuits. These breaks in the circuits were conveyed by overhead telegraph wires to the fire station. The “code wheel” inside the box had ratchet-like teeth to create the make and break. The one illustrated had 3 teeth then a gap followed by 5 teeth: box number 35.

Close-up of the Code Wheel, box number 35: 3 teeth – gap – 5 teeth

At the fire station the location of the box which had been activated was readily ascertained. The watchman, alerted of an incoming call by a loud-ringing bell, would note which circuit the alarm was being received on. He then looked at the code, usually punched in a paper tape, enabling him to determine the exact location of the box. For example Circuit A might have been Queen Street, and box 35 was at the corner of Victoria Street. That’s the address to which the watchman would dispatch firefighters.

A training note, or aid-memoire, written about the time Duplex was introduced in Auckland has come to light, courtesy of Grant Manning whose father was for some years officer in charge of Mt Albert Fire Station.  The document explains that the line breaks created by the code wheel… “cause holes to be punched in paper tapes on both Gamewell Recording machines, at the same time an electric gong strikes each time a hole is punched and a shutter drops to show which circuit the incoming call is on.  Circuit and codenumbers are shown on roller blinds in the controlroom so the location of the alarm box which has been broken can be quickly ascertained”.  The document goes on to say, “fire calls for Mt Albert Fire Brigade are now received by Duplex, by public telephone or a secret phone connecting Central Station with Mt Albert, Mt Eden, Onehunga and Mt Roskill suburban outstations”.

The Duplex system served Auckland well. But the nuisance of false alarms by hooligans, drunkards and small boys persisted. I recall one evening in the 1960s when a carload of youths set off every street fire alarm they came across in their travels along Symonds Street, through Eden Terrace and the length of Sandringham Road. This caused many turnouts until, when it was plain what was happening, Fire Chief Lloyd Wilson ordered just one appliance investigate each box… and that police be alerted.

Duplex alarms endured in Auckland until the late 1970s: by the end of the decade all street fire alarms had been removed, by which time it was common for all households to have a phone, or access to one, able to call emergency services by the universal “dial 111” system, introduced in Auckland in 1968.

The prosperous Duplex Fire Alarm Company Ltd had been established on 13 November 1915, by Geoffrey Porter, Henry Isaacs and a number of Dunedin families. The patent was assigned to the company in 1924, and it expired after one extension to 4 November 1929. Porter sold out in 1948, and in the 1960s the company was sold to Chubb and Sons NZ Ltd. Chubb then sold that part of their operation to Benefis Systems Ltd of Christchurch, which, in turn, became part of Wormald NZ.

The Lonely One, the Last One?

If all street fire alarms were removed by 1980, there is one survivor. More than 40 years later (2022) a Duplex box remains in a public place, at one of our race-courses. It’s no longer painted bright red, but more like camouflage colours, which doesn’t bode well for anyone looking for a fire alarm in the moment of panic!

A survivor: wires intact but probably not hooked up

But then, in this highly technical, digital world, it’s hardly likely that this clockwork model, invented more than a hundred years ago, is still working, probably no longer hooked up to the FENZ Communications Centre. I am saying this is the last Duplex fire alarm box remaining in a public place in Auckland.

Louis Tasman Reichel

He was probably the most successful New Zealand inventor of fire alarm systems with systems patented locally as well as in Australia, United Kingdom, United States and Canada. He was born in Orepuki, Southland in 1870 and at the age of 25 he moved to Wellington to further his studies in  telegraphy, lighting, and electrics – and this he followed up with visits to England and the continent gathering information in these fast-moving technologies. On his return he was employed by the Government electrical department in which he was later appointed Government Electrician.

Louis Tasman Reichel.
Alexander Turnbull Library

In this post he organised lighting on many public buildings to celebrate a Royal Tour in Wellington and the arrival of the Great Fleet in Auckland.

His inventions began even before his teenage years… and then in the early 1900s he patented improvements to petrol engines, an instrument for detecting moisture in wool and fibre bales and a temperature recorder – which probably led to interest in his  fire alarm system.

He left his position with the Government in 1907 to develop his invention. The Reichel system “works on an entirely new  principle of thermo-electricity, in which a current of electricity is generated by the direct application of heat in certain metals, and is simple, efficient, and it is claimed gives no false alarms, although so sensitive that less than five degrees sudden rise in temperature will operate it”. Louis’s invention, patented under the Reichel Automatic Fire Alarm and Company Limited and with his brother, Edwin’s, name sometimes attached, was first sold locally to Government Departments and private interests. It had endorsements from Fire Chiefs and Insurance Companies. Mid-1910, Louis Reichel embarked on a marketing mission overseas, resulting in international sales of the system and agreements to license other companies to make or install it.

An early Reichel system. Change in temperature moves a pointer to the right and sounds an alarm.  Wayne’s Antique Systems

Reichel sold full Canadian rights to a company for $30,000  and received an excellent report from the Chicago Underwriters’ Laboratories on the fire alarm, which was also been taken up by a trench company.

Some of the advertising for the Reichel system in New Zealand was a bit risqué. Take, for instance, fire which took out Macky Logan Caldwell’s building in Auckland in November 1911, and damaged 14 other businesses in adjacent premises.

Fire destroyed Macky Logan, Caldwell’s warehouse:.
N Z Graphic – Auckland Libraries Collection

The Reichel agent, as he had done after similar devastating fires, immediately advertised the Reichel  system in local newspapers… always taking space in the column right under news reports of the losses. It was a “Told ‘ya so!” type advertisement.

Auckland Star November 17, 1911

While the fire alarm was, by far, Louis Reichel’s best known invention he also patented a device to detect and record  deviations of a ship’s intended course. During the 1910 trial aboard SS Maheno in waters off Wellington, the apparatus evoked great interest among the quarter-masters, who vied with one another to show off their steering capabilities as indicated by the apparatus. Reichel’s wartime invention was referred to the War Office: a new type of anti-torpedo net, designed in 1915, not only to withstand the force of an incoming torpedo, but to then raise its nose so it goes to the surface from whence, after its power runs out, it sinks, harmlessly to the harbour floor.

Louis Reichel, whose name is still associated with fire alarms, died in Wellington in 1919 aged 42.

Sprinkler Fire Systems

The cleverest system was not only an automatic system that detected a fire, warning occupants of the building and sending a message to the fire station, but also one that, at the same time, started to put out the blaze, dousing it with water.

These were the sprinkler systems which began the other way around: the sprinkler part invented before the more sophisticated alarm was added.

The first sprinkler was patented by Henry Parmalee, his device licensed to fellow-American, Frederick Grinnell, who refined the system.

Rhode Islander, inventor Frederick Grinnell

In 1881 he patented the automatic sprinkler that still bears his name but has been many times improved and adapted to today’s building codes, modern plumbing and contemporary water reticulation.

Original Grinnell Sprinkler Head – “Metallic Strip”


Grinnell continued improvements, mainly to enable the system to be activated when different temperatures were detected, and, in 1890, he invented the glass disc sprinkler, essentially the same as that in use today.

Modified Glass Sprinkler Head

Over the years he secured some 40 distinct patents for improvements on his sprinklers… and when he added his patented automatic fire-alarm to the system, he completed the ideal set-up: the occupants of the premises were alerted by a gong sounding, the alarm was transmitted to the nearest fire station, the location of the fire was indicated, and sprinklers started putting out the fire.

The Grinnell company benefitted by company-takeovers and mergers: its combined operation was eventually challenged in the courts as a monopoly. But despite judgements ordering some subsidiaries to be shed, and paying hefty fines, the company survived and flourished under several names until 1976 when it was purchased by Tyco which has since furthered Grinnell Division’s international manufacturing and sales.

One of Sentinel’s systems was operated by pneumatics… compressed air within the pipes was released by heat or fire, tripping the alarm, summoning the brigade.

Sprinklers in Auckland… a First

One of the city’s enterprising businessmen, Josiah Firth, was an early adaptor of new things and he decided to install sprinklers in his new waterfront flour mill which was under construction in 1887… that’s before the glass disc sprinkler was perfected by Grinnell. It was the first time such a system had been seen in New Zealand… but Firth the innovator had seen it working in America and thought it worthwhile.

Josiah Firth: Innovator.
Auckland Libraries

To complete fire protection of his premises he also installed a powerful steam-powered water pump with access, if required, to draw  water from the harbour.

In December 1887 Firth applied for, and obtained, permission from Auckland City Council to plumb his premises’ Grinnell system into city water pipes.

Firth’s Mill, Quay Street. The first buiding in Auckland to be fitted with a fire sprinkler system.
Auckland Libraries

Because this was a first, his application revealed detailed specifications: “a three-inch (7.5cm) pipe is placed along the ceiling of each room with branch pipes every 12 feet (4m). Patent sprinklers are attached at intervals of 12 feet (4m). The valve admitting the water is kept shut by a lever fastened by bismuth solder, which melts at a temperature of 105 degrees (40c). This releases the valve, and a deluge of rain descends from the sprinkler. The advantage of the system is that water is only applied where fire actually existed”. After a successful  demonstration of the system, simulating a real fire which was extinguished minutes after the sprinkler automatically activated, the city councillors were sold on the idea! He was allowed to connect the system into city water mains.

Firth suffered setbacks many Grinnell-users found with those early systems: the pipes leaked at the heads, a solution Grinnell himself worked at, and overcame.

[Josiah Firth had an earlier connection with Auckland’s fire protection. At an evening meeting of the local Council in May 1860 he was appointed Superintendent of the city’s fire brigade. Remarkably, later that same night fire extensively damaged the flour mill in Queen Street that he owned with two partners. Firth, citing pressure of work in his businesses, resigned his position with the brigade in August 1860 and was replaced by William Crush Daldy]

From Firth’s bold and pioneering installation of the first Grinnell system in Auckland nearly 140 years ago, other property owners took up the sprinkler fire protection system, which, with refinements, had the benefit of dousing an incipient fire, sounding a gong to alert occupants of the premises and simultaneously sending an alarm to the fire station. Today it’s a standard means of fire protection around the globe, often mandated in legislation, and found in many premises. Modern versions are tamperproof, ensuring would-be arsonists can’t disable the system and there’s wide choice in thermal activation, a variety of glass ampules available to suit particular ambient temperatures in industrial processes and premises.

Fire engineers select the appropriate glass ampule – the “trigger” temperature

Heat and Smoke Alarms

The early inventors’ systems were designed to provide stand-alone heat or smoke detectors. These, too, have been improved in design and function over the decades… some “smoke” detectors only sense selected particulates, while heat detectors in “hot industries” such as a foundries etc, can be set ultra-high before they activate. Today fire alarms are sophisticated, with digital equipment that often links them to a computer which connects with similar equipment in fire stations or communication centres. The price of smoke detectors are now affordable so that they have become essential household items, their installation encouraged by fire brigades and insurance companies alike. Latest ones have a photo-electric detector, a battery life of 10 years, a strident alarm and can be purchased for under NZ$50.

Modern photo- electric household smoke detector. Cavius – Noel Leemimg

Various alarm systems have been miniaturised and streamlined over the decades. A sprinkler system designed for family homes was demonstrated some years ago, a cut-down version of commercial applications, but the idea hasn’t been taken up.

“Installation faults” and “false alarms” still occur in bigger commercial and industrial systems, but they are few compared to the vast number of these systems now in our communities. Systems can automatically advise which sprinkler or detector heads have activated so firefighters can be advised the location of the alarm within a complex, and whether it’s likely to be a false alarm or a system-fault. Equipment to receive alarms had to keep up with technical changes.

Old Auckland control-room.
“United To Protect”

In Auckland, the early 1960s the Vigilant Mark 8 system was installed, replacing what was left of the Duplex equipment, and then in late 1988 a large area on the top floor of Regional Fire Headquarters in Pitt Street was cleared for the country’s first computerised control-room which received and processed all incoming fire alarms, including phone calls received on the 111 emergency lines.

Computerised facilities in Regional Headquarters, Pitt Street 1998.
“United To Protect”

This system served Greater Auckland until the control-room was moved to premises shared with police in Great North Road, Grey Lynn. All operations moved to Otahuhu in 2020, with further digital and other technical upgrades each time they moved.

Five ideal requirements of a fire alarm system were mentioned earlier. The fire sprinkler system fulfils all five –

  • It automatically detects the fire,
  • at the same time it warns the occupants in the premises,
  • it simultaneously alerts the fire brigade and
  • it suppresses or extinguishes the fire…
  • …with built-in redundancy and tamper-proof fittings.

To conclude, mention of some of the fire alarm systems and companies which, over the years, have protected some of our biggest industrial plants, commercial premises, hospitals and government buildings as well as places of public assembly:  Grinnell, Wormalds, May-Oatway, Simplex, Duplex, Gamewell, Kirkby, Reichel, Guardian, Vigilant, Benefis, Chubb, Honeywell, ERIF, Siemens, Bensan, Pertronic, Setinel, EMI, Argus, Viking, Tyco and Gravity are among  brands and companies which have specialised in making, fitting or servicing fire alarms in New Zealand.


RCC December 2022/ January 2023