During the past few days, hundreds of calls to Los Angeles city offices in the San Fernando Valley, including non-emergency police calls, have gone unanswered because of human error and technical breakdowns in the city's phone system, officials said Monday.
The phone problems began Friday when the city eliminated five different prefixes for city offices in the Valley and replaced them with one prefix, 756. But instead of simplifying the system, the change--at least temporarily--created chaos.
Instead of hearing the recording for a new number, callers who continued dialing the old prefixes reached a backlogged system that responded with a busy signal, continuous ringing or a recording telling them that the line had been disconnected. The problems continued Monday.
City officials said they could not gauge exactly how many calls were affected by the problems. But they estimated that hundreds of calls did not make a connection because the prefix change was instituted on 2,000 city lines.
The confusion created frustration, particularly with callers to Valley police divisions, some of whom dialed 911 when they failed to get through on non-emergency lines. Police officials said it's difficult to tell how many calls to 911 were attributed to the phone problems because a vast majority of calls to that number are traditionally for non-emergency problems.
Valley police also expressed frustration about the prefix change, saying they did not get advance warning and were therefore unable to pass on their new numbers to block captains and other community contacts.
"What a mess," said LAPD Sgt. Frank Mezquita of the West Valley Division. "They never informed anyone that it was being done until it was done."
Calls to City Council offices in the Valley also were lost, rankling council aides.
"Constituents are tremendously frustrated because they think we aren't answering the phones," said Karen Constine, chief of staff for Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents parts of the West Valley.
City officials and representatives for Pacific Bell blamed each other for at least some of the problems.
Although Pacific Bell was hired to execute the prefix change, the phone company said the city should take some of the blame for not adequately notifying residents and city employees about the prefix change.
Because of the lack of notification, the number of calls to the old prefixes did not decline when the change took effect and the system that provides a recorded message with the correct numbers became backlogged, said Pacific Bell spokesman Gary Sanderson. Therefore, callers caught in the backlog met with a busy signal or continuous ringing, he said.
"We are finding out that whatever publicity was done was not as broad and timely as possible," Sanderson said.
Pacific Bell, he said, was in the process Monday of increasing by threefold the capacity of the system that provides the recordings with the correct numbers.
City officials accepted part of the blame but also attributed some of the problems to unforeseen mechanical breakdowns, clerical errors and a miscommunication that they attributed in part to the Northridge quake.
"It's like Murphy's Law," said Don Keith, the city's director of communications.
Because Pacific Bell was in the process of instituting the switch when the earthquake struck on Jan. 17, Keith said his office believed that the switch would be delayed. When Pacific Bell notified the city that the switch would go ahead as planned, he said his department was caught by surprise.
To make matters worse, he said the city failed to send notices to employees within the city explaining the prefix change. Keith said his department tried to notify city departments by telephone about the switch.
He said his department did not send notices to the public about the switch because he expected that the phone system would automatically refer callers to the correct number or to a city operator.
But then, another problem arose: The mechanism within the city's phone system that transfers all busy calls to a live operator was broken when the switch took effect, Keith said. Workers are now trying to repair the system, he said.
Keith said Pacific Bell further exacerbated the problem by "plugging in the wrong recording," causing some callers who dial the old prefixes to hear a recording that says the number has been disconnected.
The prefix change affects all city phone numbers in the 818 area code with the prefixes 989, 902, 904, 908, and 376. All five prefixes were changed to 756. Numbers with the 989 prefix will keep the same last four digits as before. Numbers with the 902, 904, 908 and 376 prefixes now have the 756 prefix and then the number 9 and the same last three digits (i.e. 756-9XXX).