Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on November 1, 2016.

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The 1975 New York telephone company building fire New York City


IN FEBRUARY 27, 1975, a fire broke out in the basement of a telephone exchange switching center in lower Manhattan. The fire began in a cable vault, an area that held phone lines entering and exiting the building, and spread vertically to the first and second floors, where the distribution frame and switching equipment were located.

The blaze posed a number of challenges to firefighters, starting with the layout of the building’s floors, which were described by some observers as “maze-like.” For security reasons, the windows on the first floor were made of thick-wired glass with a Lexan plastic film, a combination that made ventilation difficult, and the floor’s layout was divided by glass partitions that protected the distribution frame from contaminants like dust and lint.

Perhaps the most challenging characteristic of the fire was the heavy smoke and toxic gases it created. The cables used in the exchange were covered variously with lead, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride, the last of which covered cables that connected the cable vault to the distribution frame, as well as cables connecting switching equipment throughout the building on the upper floors. The polyvinyl chloride insulation created significant amounts of smoke and gas when it burned, enough to hinder firefighting efforts. Nearly 700 New York City firefighters worked more than 16 hours to control the fire.

The blaze interrupted telephone service to 12 exchanges and more than 170,000 telephones—a total loss of telephone service, including 911, to customers in a 300-square-block area. Despite the damage, telephone services to most emergency facilities in the affected area were restored within 24 hours of the fire. Some police dispatchers were temporarily moved to an alternative location to better balance response to affected areas and throughout Manhattan. In the days that followed, emergency phone banks were installed in storefront offices, and mobile units were set up in strategic locations to provide emergency phone services and information to residents and businesses. New York Telephone worked day and night to restore service and was able to get new equipment delivered, installed, and tested, with full service restored to all residents and businesses 24 days later.

By comparison, it would take decades to understand the event’s impact on firefighters. The majority of firefighters who fought the fire reported respiratory problems in the aftermath of the blaze, with approximately one- third of the firefighters reporting problems so severe that they required medical attention. In 2015, on the fire’s 40th anniversary, Dr. Kerry Kelly, FDNY’s chief medical officer, said that “because of this landmark fire, we knew we had to do better.” The long-term health effects of the telephone exchange fire would later inspire the FDNY’s Medical Office to create the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program after 9/11.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA.