Debate over a century-old city fire alarm system heated up Wednesday night, with officials weighing speedy response times against the ever-rising costs of maintaining infrastructure.

David Michaels, acting fire chief, spoke at a York City Council work session, recommending the city do away with its Gamewell alarm box system, in place since the 1880s. Michaels expressed respect for the history, but eventually argued the system's maintenance costs are too much.

"It might be time," he said. "Do we really want to stay in the fire alarm business?"

Opinions varied.

Councilman Henry Nixon questioned the cost of those little red boxes on poles and city businesses, noting the $84,000 in annual revenue from business fees is largely canceled out by the cost of system maintenance.

That money might be better spent elsewhere, he said.

Councilman Michael Helfrich proposed a system giving business owners - now required to pay several hundred dollars to sign on - the option. Let's see who sticks with that system, and who pays a private company for more modern technology, he said.

"That would give us more of an understanding of the businesses who want to be a part of that (system) and those who don't," he said.

Right now, many city businesses are required to use the Gamewell alarm system. A fire alarm system is required, but Michaels is proposing the choice of provider should be left to individuals.

On Wednesday, the city council tabled any move in lieu of further review.

A 2010 study recommended removal of York's Gamewell boxes. But the debate continues.

Rick Merck, a former York County fire chief and city inspector, said the aging system has endured because of its speed - it's hardwired to the fire station- but added today there are other, third-party options perhaps better maintained.

"There is nothing that is faster than the Gamewell system," he said. "But you have to weigh speed versus reliability."

Michaels stressed any removal would be slow, with safety paramount.

"We're still going to have safe buildings," he said.

@timstonesifer; 771-2032