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71,000 Phones Falter in O.C. Computer Glitch : Communication: Long-distance, 911 calls are disrupted for 8 hours in 'very rare, very serious' breakdown.


CYPRESS — A computer malfunction Wednesday disrupted telephone service to thousands of north Orange County homes and businesses, including the emergency 911 lines to several police and fire agencies.

About 71,000 telephone customers were unable to make or receive toll or long-distance calls for eight hours because of a computer glitch, which occurred shortly before 8 a.m. and struck parts of West Anaheim, Cypress, Buena Park, Brea and La Palma.

As a result, the county Fire Department increased its presence on the streets. One of the larger hospitals in the area enlisted the help of ham radio operators to transmit urgent messages. And people at many businesses and homes said they were basically left in a telephonic black hole, unable to talk to anyone outside their local calling area.

"I can't remember anything of this magnitude in years," said Linda Bonniksen, a spokeswoman for Pacific Bell Co. "This is very, very rare and obviously very serious."

Early in the morning, Pacific Bell officials went on news radio programs to advise their customers to use the seven-digit, non-toll numbers for police and fire department instead of 911. People were also advised to communicate emergencies with cellular phones or ham radios, which were not affected by the computer malfunction.

In an unrelated problem, 7,000 phone lines at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station went dead about 9 a.m. Wednesday. That outage was blamed on a faulty timing device, and service was down for 3 1/2 hours.

"It's been a horrible day for our customers," Bonniksen said.

The most menacing problem, though, was at Pacific Bell's call processing center in Cypress, where a computer device that acts as a "gatekeeper" for incoming and outgoing toll and long-distance calls malfunctioned.

Company officials were baffled as to why the equipment failed and said they had difficulty correcting the situation. Service was finally restored at 4 p.m.

Fire and police officials said they were concerned about not receiving emergency calls on the 911 lines. Police officials in the affected areas, however, said they did not believe that any major incidents slipped by because of the phone problems.

Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young said firefighters patrolled the areas where service was disrupted. He said two trucks and five engine companies surveyed parts of Cypress, West Anaheim, Los Alamitos and Seal Beach "looking for problems."

"Our concern is that there is a fire out there increasing in magnitude and we're not hearing about it," Young said. "The biggest problem is going to be the silent heart attack at home where the person doesn't know the phones are out and then tries to call us."

In an age when most businesses rely on telephone lines to link clients, computers and fax machines, the loss of service can be extremely costly.

Bonniksen said her office was flooded with complaints from customers who were "agitated and frustrated" by the situation.

At Knott's Berry Farm, Bob Ochsner, a park spokesman, tried to overcome the difficulties by using his cellular phone. But its batteries died in the middle of one call. When he was unable to use his fax machine to send out some information, Ochsner turned to Federal Express.

When he was finally able to return messages, he explained his tardiness. "I wasn't trying to avoid you, I just couldn't return the call," Ochsner told one caller.

Business at Jupiter Travel in Cypress came to a standstill.

"Our computers were down, we couldn't make reservations and we couldn't fax anything," said travel agent Naoko Tochioka. "We could do nothing all day. . . . I just filed and cleaned off my desk."

At the West Anaheim Medical Center, Laura Johnson, switchboard supervisor for the 243-bed facility, was swamped with the usual number of calls. But they weren't incoming calls. They were from doctors inside the hospital who were wondering why they couldn't call anyone on the outside.

Bob Reitzel, a Brea ham radio operator and volunteer member of the Hospital Disaster Communications Group, was called to the medical center to help. He rushed back and forth between the switchboard and his truck's ham radio to relay messages out of the hospital.

By 1 p.m., he had sent out four messages. None were critical.

"This is our hobby--helping out hospitals when they need our assistance," Reitzel said.

Many outfits that depend on telephone orders didn't know if there was a problem with the phones or if they were just suddenly unpopular.

"I had a feeling something was going on," said Jamie Nelson, manager of a Pizza Hut in Stanton, near West Anaheim. As he stood behind the counter during the lunch hour, he frowned and said business was down by at least half. "The phones have not been ringing," Nelson said.

Although the phone lines in the troubled area had dial tones, a toll or long-distance call would not be connected. The lines would either have a busy signal or switch to a recorded message from an operator indicating that there were technical difficulties.

Later in the day, phone lines outside the affected area were reportedly experiencing problems. Bonniksen said that was caused by "congestion" on the network.

To correct the computer malfunction, phone technicians first tried to reprogram the computer. When that failed, they hooked the Cypress computer to a computer in New Jersey, which proved successful.

Times correspondents Willson Cummer and Shelby Grad contributed to this report.

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