Hello? County Rings In New Telephone System

Times Staff Writer

What would happen if suddenly the 10,300 telephones to San Diego County government offices lost their dial tones? And, what would happen if, when the public tried to reach one of the 13,000 county employees, they received a recorded message announcing, “That number is no longer in service and there is no new number”?

For several weeks now, Nancy Allen, an aide to county Supervisor John MacDonald, has been trying to short-circuit this communications gap by telling everyone who calls the supervisor’s office about the new telephone number. She has been told that, as of today, the lines will go dead and there will be no referrals to the new number by Pacific Bell operators.

Inaugural Call by Charlton Heston

Pomp and ceremony ushered in the new county government telephone system Wednesday afternoon, as actor Charlton Heston made the inaugural telephone call on the $16-million system, installed by Contel, to U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) in Washington. Heston was promptly put on hold, then informed that Wilson had been called away on Senate business. So the actor chatted instead with a tongue-tied San Diego County Supervisor George Bailey. Bailey was in Washington to lobby federal officials for a new county jail site in San Diego.


In a second call to Wilson a few minutes later, Heston misdialed. When a recording began to inform him that he had dialed incorrectly, Heston admitted to “human error,” but he finally got through to the senator.

The blemished beginning for the sophisticated telecommunications system, which will tie the county’s far-flung offices together in a microwave link, is likely to be followed by thousands of similar human errors before the kinks are out of the system, county and Contel officials admit.

Interim Phone Book Doesn’t Help Much

The problem is that many county employees don’t know their own telephone numbers, much less any of their colleagues’ numbers. An “interim” telephone book, sent out to select members of the county’s executive corps, lists many numbers under the new system that, according to staff members, are not correct.

Herman Rosenthal, a Planning Department transportation analyst, admits that he does not know his own telephone number and hasn’t received a phone book to guide him. If he did have a phone book, he would find that his number was 750-8422. If he

called his number, he would get a recorded message saying: “We’re sorry, but your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and dial again or call your operator to help you.”

Actually, phone service to almost all major county operations will continue as usual for about five or six weeks, with employees answering two telephones--the old phone and the new system--on their desks. Ten thousand of the 13,000 employees have been trained to use the new telephones, but, Deputy County Administrator Richard Jacobsen acknowledges, “There are still a lot of people out there who are afraid to pick up the new phones, even if they are ringing.”


Pacific Telephone Co., which is losing about $4.4 million a year in revenues as the county takes over its own phone system, does not have the obligation or the right to answer the old telephone numbers as the county gradually pulls the plugs on its Pac Bell equipment. That is why callers not using the new numbers in the coming weeks will get the word that “. . . there is no new number.”

But Pacific Bell telephone directories issued in San Diego County carry both the old and the new county telephone numbers, presumably the correct ones, in the front of the White Pages under “County Government Listings.” Eventually, probably by about Nov. 19, county employees will receive an updated--and correct--telephone book of their county peers.

Rosy Future Predicted

Jacobsen admits that the interim phone book leaves much to be desired in accuracy, but he promised that the current snafu will mature into a system so much better than its antiquated dial phone system that employees will overcome their phone jitters and espouse this state-of-the-art microwave communications network wholeheartedly.

Countywide, employees are a lot less enthusiastic than the Contel Business Networks officials who installed the system. At Wednesday’s inauguration of the system, references to “earlier ill-fated attempts” to upgrade the system brought back memories of the Telink scandal, in which some county officials and telecommunications experts were indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges alleging that they paid and accepted bribes and kickbacks to gain the lucrative telephone contract. Many of the principals are still awaiting trial in federal court.

The new communications system will link 10,000 county offices via microwave dish, allowing county workers to receive voice, data and graphics over the 4,300-square-mile network. Better yet, said Jacobsen, it will save county taxpayers an estimated $44 million to $45 million in telephone charges.

The new system was initially scheduled to go into service June 1, but installation delays postponed the date until today. Bob Lerner, county public information officer, advised that county employees who haven’t received a new phone directory, or can’t find the listing they need, should call the new information number.


That number, which is not listed in the new county-issued phone book, is 694-3900.