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Patient Angelenos Deal With a New Call Waiting : Communications: Calls from the East couldn't get through, while some in L.A. resorted to walkie-talkies. And getting lottery tickets was no sure bet.

March 16, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's that sound?

It's the phone not ringing.

In a city with three area codes, a city where people can be spotted walking down neighborhood streets squiring a dog on a leash in one hand and carrying a cellular telephone in the other, the silence was almost operatic in scope. The morning for many Angelenos got short-circuited when fire knocked out service at a Downtown Pacific Bell switching facility for several hours Tuesday morning.

At the Downtown office of Travel Service International, the clients from the East Coast who usually call early in the morning could not get through and the agents' computers that connect them to the airlines were not working anyway.

"We couldn't pull up anything, we couldn't do anything," said travel agent Julie Neilson, who arrived at 7:30 a.m. "We couldn't even get hold of the airlines on the phone because the 800 numbers were down." She busied herself with correspondence. "You get stressed out because you don't know how long it's going to be."

When KBIG listener lines went down, so did the 6:15 a.m. and 7:40 a.m. trivia questions, dashing chances to win a Little Caesar's pizza party pack or a $100 T.J. Maxx gift certificate.

And depending on where you were, you could forget about cashing in that winning lottery ticket--or buying one.

And although phones did not go down everywhere, some fantasized about what it would be like.

"I wish they were down," sighed one harried phone answerer at the Screen Actors Guild.

Some were oblivious.

"What phones are down?" asked an emergency room nurse at Holy Cross Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley, where there was no phone fallout. Despite the fact that 911 service was temporarily disrupted, no one reported any deaths or injuries because of the delay.

But at the brokerage firm of Smith Barney Shearson in Century City, one stockbroker said: "Somebody got sick in the office and we couldn't get through to 911." Paramedics eventually arrived and treated the man.

Others may have been jumping to conclusions. "On my way into work, I couldn't get a signal on my (cellular) phone," said one Downtown lawyer.

"Tell him to check his battery," quipped one wise Angeleno.

Some businesses are simply prepared for phone problems. "As part of our preparation for disasters and earthquakes, our reporters have alternative ways of getting on the air," KNX radio news director Bob Sims said. "All reporters have two-way walkie-talkies.

Sims did note that a special high-quality circuit into their City Hall bureau went down. Instead, they got through on a regular telephone line.

Most simply waited.

In the City Hall office of Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the phones went dead for 45 minutes. It is not unusual for every one of the seven lines to be lit up. "I hate having dead phones," said Katharine Macdonald, press secretary to Yaroslavsky. "I love talking on the phone."

Not only were a significant number of lottery outlets affected because their computer data lines are hooked up to Sacramento via telephone, the Van Nuys office manager of the California Lottery was personally affected. When Deborah Smith first heard about the phone problems, she tried calling Sacramento from her house--in the 818 area code--to no avail.

When she arrived at her office, her problems continued: "We couldn't get through to Sacramento, we couldn't get through on our WATS line." And she had no way of knowing how many of the 2,300 outlets she manages were suffering difficulties because none could call her either.

But forget about Angelenos being shocked by this lack of phone service. "The closest thing I could compare this to?" she mused. "The type of disconnection we had with the earthquake--circuits were busy. You couldn't reach personnel."

The Pacific Stock Exchange reported no problems. It works on a computer system that is separate from the phone system. Although trading proceeded at a normal pace Tuesday, some traders had intermittent problems placing phone calls to clients and offices in the East.

"But persistence won out," said Karen Sulker-Hall, secretary to the director of floor operations. "One person said it was the challenge of the day."

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