Need to Enhance Team Communication? Visit an “Alarm Room!”

No smartphones? Didn't matter. The team that used this room were elite communicators

No smartphones? Didn’t matter. The team that used this room were elite communicators.

If you manage a team or lead a department that is struggling with communication, it might be time to visit one of the most unique and inexpensive examples of functional communication. The Fire Museum of Maryland is tucked just north of downtown Towson, hidden behind a few ambiguous buildings on York Road. I visited the museum one random weekend to support a friend and while there I was given a tour of something I never knew existed. It’s called the “Alarm Room.”

The Alarm Room first strikes you as something from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, but it is the brain child of late-1800’s firefighters leveraging creative and limited communication technology. It is whimsical and humbling to see in action. Here is the process (knowledgeable historians, please forgive my casual descriptions):

  • A fire is spotted and someone pulls a fire-box alarm on the street. The box sends a signal through wires to the main firehouse dispatcher, communicating the threat of a fire.
  • A receiver within the dispatch center sounds a bell alarm, and ticker tape messages start to flow from a reel of tape connected to a hole punching morse code type device.
  • The ticker tape morse code device taps out a fortune cookie-wide stream of punched holes, and the dispatcher translates the location of the alarm box near the fire.
  • Dispatch then sounds the alarm from a church organ sized motherboard that looks like a wall of lights, knobs and levers. Signals are sent from the this board to the fire house nearest or most available to the fire.
  • The firefighting resources are dispatched, and when they get there they head to the box alarm and begin tapping out more morse code communication to the dispatch center to confirm their arrival and/or need for more resources.
  • The dispatch center measures who is where with a peg board method, as well as how long each resource is allocated. More ticker tape, buzzing bells, blinking lights, and we (anyone operating the Alarm Room) aren’t even at the scene of the fire! Once the fire is dealt with, the alarm box is turned off and the confirmation is sent.

The Alarm Room had everything but two coffee cans strung together, but it saved lives for decades! Seeing its primitive, clanking, and mechanized process gently unfold while chaos ensued at the scene of a fire distracted me from all of the limitations firefighters faced. The physical distance between a dispatcher and a firehouse could be significant, sometimes miles away with no other channel of communication. The time it took for each message to be tapped out, decoded, and then responded to could have taken minutes to develop. Resources were limited and needed to be managed. Compared to the way things work today, you can’t help but ask how this was so successful?


This is about EFFORT. Teams and departments that struggle with communication might shift blame towards a variety of modern-day excuses. Not enough time available to communicate? You can’t get in front of someone because he/she is hard to track down? You claim that you don’t have enough resources or the right tools to communicate? Shame on you! Technology is the answer and most businesses have plenty of it. So what is the real reason?

How was the Alarm Room process consistently effective? Experiential learning delivers the concept dynamically. If you can visit the Alarm Room with your management peers and teammates, seeing it in action will convey what my blog cannot. No matter how restricted you and your team may be, if everyone sits down to build a thoughtful communications program collaboratively by combining creativity and the available tools, that process will be effective regardless of the presence of smartphones and cutting edge technology. I encourage you to visit the Fire Museum of Maryland to see it yourself. The experience of seeing it first hand is inspiring.

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