The Red Phones

Moscow and Washington had nothing on the red phone homes of yesteryear

By Chris Harris

Today, when you call 911 to report a fire, your call gets routed to the Emergency Dispatch Center located at the State Police Barracks in Shelburne, which is fully staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Before there was Dispatch, Northfield citizens relied upon a dedicated cadre of volunteer firemen and their wives to man the red phones. Christine Dunnell, wife of Chief Floyd M. “Skip” Dunnell, explains:

“There were six phones on a party line. When somebody had a fire, they would call that number and we waited three rings. That way, everybody that had a phone would get there by the third ring. You’d pick it up and say ‘Northfield Fire Department’ and take the call. You’d write down the information and after the caller hung up, you would say, ‘Who’s on?’ Hopefully other people would be on. Each home had its own list of firefighters and after you found out who was on, you’d call your list. The ones that weren’t on, you’d take their list over.”

The firemen’s wives were a crucial component of the red phone system, for they were the ones left holding the phone as their husbands sped off to the scene.

“The red phone system worked,” Chris Dunnell recalls, “but it was hard because you couldn’t even take a shower unless you knew someone else was listening for the phone; that phone had to be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You couldn’t go out and mow the lawn unless you checked because someone had to be on. There was one at the Town Hall, so during the day you could check to make sure the secretary wasn’t at any meetings or anything like that. Or you’d just check with one of the other red phone homes. And before you made plans, you had to check. There were times when you wanted to go out to supper, or you were wanting to go see a movie and you’d call around and nobody else was near the phone, so you couldn’t leave the house.

“Even if you were just around the corner in the kitchen using a mixer, or vacuuming. Could you hear the red phone over the noise? We had a bell outside that rang when the fire phone rang, but you could not just say, ‘Let’s go down street for an ice cream!’

“So I really appreciated it when Dispatch took over that service for the Fire Department. I’m very proud that Skip was a founding director for Franklin County Emergency Dispatch. He helped make that dream, that someday the phones would be answered by a dispatch center, come true.”