Crisis Leaves Callers on Hold

Times Staff Writer

Word of Jessica Lauren Pry’s birth was delivered to her delighted relatives in this Chicago suburb by a red-and-white pizza wagon--along with a certificate good for a large pizza.

With phone service here still plagued by a Mother’s Day fire that damaged one of the four telephone switching centers serving the Chicago area, Hinsdale Hospital struck a deal with Joe Sepulveda, manager of Connie’s Pizza in nearby Westmont: Sepulveda agreed to dispatch a pizza truck every hour to pick up birth announcements along with any pizza orders the hospital staff might care to place.

As the phone crisis drags on here, daily routines and rhythms are changing for businesses, residents and municipal agencies. Local newspaper reporters are running up mileage instead of phone bills. Real estate sales agents, their computerized multiple-listing service knocked out by the phone fire, personally deliver new listings to one another. Bank customers, cut off from their automated cash machines, are becoming reacquainted with human tellers.


“The bottom line is that I will never again take the telephone for granted,” said David P. Atwood, a Hinsdale realtor.

The disruption in phone service, beyond taking a toll on people’s nerves, also is raising questions about the security of crucial telecommunications equipment--in places as far away as earthquake-prone California. And the economic damage is mounting. An Illinois state legislator put business losses at about $150 million so far, and the figure is sure to be far higher by the time normal service is restored sometime in early June.

Illinois Bell has 250-man crews working elbow-to-elbow around-the-clock to install a big, new AT&T; switching machine in Hinsdale. At first, 35,000 customers in Hinsdale and surrounding communities lost all of their service. The situation has improved only slightly since the May 8 fire. Now, after perhaps half a dozen tries, people can get some calls through.

“Things are on the mend,” Atwood said, “But for almost a week, we didn’t get a single phone call.”

Still, telephone users continue to improvise. At Argonne National Laboratory, a federal government research center west of here in DuPage County, scientists must rely on a radio setup inside a van to keep in touch with their counterparts in Washington.

In nearby Elmhurst, Dale A. Carlson, president of Arcade Travel Service, has had a high-tech crisis, too: His firm’s 28 computers, all dependent on the phone lines, have been unable to comb through travel schedules and handle orders electronically, the usual way.

So, for the time being, Carlson has transformed his delivery drivers into roving order-takers covering the travel agency’s regular accounts. He also has dispatched sales agents to knock on doors at major companies and asked an employee living in Chicago to establish a telephone outpost at her home.

Even Illinois Bell Telephone had to resort to the mail to reach its customers in the area--sending out cards addressed to “Dear Hinsdale Area Customer.” Customers unable to report continuing phone problems by calling the utility’s repair service were asked to answer questions on the back of the cards explaining their trouble--ranging from no dial tone to static on the line--and to drop them off at one of a number of emergency public phone trailers stationed about the affected area.

Illinois Bell also has installed hundreds of free phones and pay phones at dozens of locations. At one of its vans parked outside Hinsdale’s stricken switching facility, which is housed in a two-story brick building at Second Street and Lincoln Avenue, residents line up to make free calls within the 312 area code, which includes Chicago, and to use long-distance credit cards to call out of the area, said spokeswoman Pat Montgomery.

Regular Patrols

In addition, the company set up four temporary work centers with 200 phones overall to help keep telephone-dependent smaller businesses functioning--even providing regularly scheduled free shuttle-bus service to them. The centers have proved popular with, among others, insurance agents, real estate agents and attorneys, said Karen Vessely, Illinois Bell’s director of marketing for 350,000 general business accounts.

From the outset, the Village of Hinsdale and neighboring communities posted police cars and other vehicles at major intersections to help residents reach emergency police, fire and ambulance service by radio. Hinsdale maintains regular patrols, too, to look for people who need help.

Vessely said her Illinois Bell business customers are asking: “Can this ever happen again?” The answer, she said, is yes. After all, said spokesman Dick Hill, customers likely would not want to pay for “100% redundancy"--that is, a complete backup system--for their phone service.

“We do provide redundancy for those customers willing to pay for it,” he said, “and for vital services, such as Federal Aviation Administration circuits” used in air-traffic control. Generally, however, Illinois Bell relies on special equipment to contain damage instead of more expensive backup systems, he said.

In California, many Pacific Bell business customers have expressed concerns about the Hinsdale experience, said Gail Hutchinson, a marketing manager for the San Francisco-based utility.

“Our customers are concerned,” she said. “First there was this month’s First Interstate Bank Building fire, followed by the Chicago area fire. We work with our customers to develop diverse routing for telephone wires and other backup measures.”

Also, because of the state’s susceptibility to earthquakes, Pacific Bell has been working since the 1971 Sylmar quake to reinforce its facilities to the same seismic standards employed for nuclear power generating stations, Hutchinson said.

Lawsuits Predicted

Andrew Barrett, a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates Illinois Bell, said the ICC intends to probe the adequacy of the utility’s safeguards and to determine why its crucial switching facility was being monitored electronically from Springfield, 200 miles away, rather than being manned around the clock.

“I am totally appalled at that,” Barrett said in an interview.

Barrett said the commission lacks the authority to force the utility to compensate businesses for losses stemming from the outage, but he predicted “an awful lot” of suits against Illinois Bell from companies seeking to collect damages for lost business.

Barrett and Illinois Bell gave varying accounts of the immediate response to the fire. Barrett complained that it took 68 minutes from the time the alarm was sounded in Springfield, relayed to a worker at home in Hinsdale and forwarded to the Hinsdale Fire Department. “The worker asked a passing motorist to notify the fire department,” he said, “but the motorist never did.”

Illinois Bell’s Montgomery countered that a worker was on the scene by 4:30 p.m., 10 minutes after fire set off the alarm in Springfield.

However, Montgomery acknowledged, the alarm system, as a matter of company policy, intentionally bypassed the Hinsdale Fire Department only a few blocks away. The reason, she said, was to ensure that Illinois Bell technicians would be present to open the building to firefighters and to give them advice to minimize damage to sensitive network equipment.

That arrangement likely will be re-examined when the company reviews the disaster, she said. “We’ll be looking at everything involved in this, but we’re preoccupied now with getting service restored.”

Illinois Bell’s customers, meanwhile, are looking at their phone service in a new light. For instance, Carlson of the Arcade Travel Service said his chief concern, given the way his computers rely on telephone service, is “whether we haven’t put too many of our eggs in one basket.”

Cellular Phone Sales Up

Not that everyone has suffered from the interrupted phone service.

“We have had the largest sales week in company history,” said Katy Boudas of Ameritech Mobile Communications, which operates cellular phone networks in Chicago and a dozen other major markets. She said sales were up 40% over average weekly sales earlier this year at the company, which--like Illinois Bell--is a subsidiary of Ameritech.

About half of the increase, she said, came from sales of portable or transportable units. The rest of the sales were for car phones.

“People seem to be looking on it now as the equivalent of the candle in the kitchen drawer” during a power outage, she said. “Even outside this area, people are asking themselves, ‘What if we had a fire like that here?’ ”