Let’s Talk Turkey: Nation Is Hooked on Hot Lines : Communications: Once used mainly for emergency help, the phone services now take tips from the public and offer advice on everything from pants to pork chops.
O.J. Simpson has one. So does the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
But even if you’re not trying to catch the “real killer or killers"--or catch a bus during a transit strike--it’s more than likely that a toll-free telephone hot line is available to suit your needs.
Swallow some boric acid and need an emergency antidote? Phone the Poison Control Center. Curious about the safe temperature for baking a pork chop? Call the federal Meat and Poultry Hotline. Spot an erratically steered big-rig on the Santa Monica Freeway? Dial the 1 (800) ‘How Am I Driving’ number displayed above the 18-wheeler’s rear mud flap.
Is there any doubt that America is hot line crazy? Consider the fact that there are two competing toll-free phone lines sponsored by firms selling tablets to break down the indigestible gas-causing sugars found in beans.
“In the beginning, when they said ‘hot line,’ it was exactly what it meant--a place you’d call if you were in trouble and there’d be someone on the end of the line who could give you assistance, referrals and direction,” said Andrea Thompson Adam, hot line coordinator for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. “These days, the term hot line is being taken for granted as anything you can get information on--including where to buy cars, shoes and furniture.”
In the Simpson case, attorneys for the celebrity murder defendant say they’ve received more than 250,000 calls on a toll-free tip hot line set up less than two weeks ago to seek exculpatory evidence. In the case of the transit strike, a second “800" phone line offering recorded information was established after callers inundated the MTA’s regular transit hot line with an estimated 15,000 calls on the first day of the walkout.
Yet the volume of calls on those highly publicized phone lines is but a fraction of that generated by toll-free hot lines nationally.
On any given business day, about 1.4 million calls go through to “800" hot lines serviced by AT&T; alone, according to phone company officials.
“With an ‘800' number, you can cover the entire nation, or a region, a state or even a specific area code,” said AT&T; spokesman Monty Hoyt. “For businesses, hot lines are a very important immediate contact with their customers. They can find out instantly whether they have a big success on their hands or a lemon they can change before it’s too late.”
Although consumer hot lines are now a staple for firms ranging from clothing manufacturers to turkey farmers, the roots of the phenomenon are far removed from the everyday world of merchandising.
The first known use of the term hot line, according to etymologists and telephone historians, was in the mid-1950s in connection with government emergency communications equipment.
The best-known hot line of this sort was the teletype circuitry installed in 1963 linking the White House and Kremlin to avoid any misunderstanding that could result in nuclear conflagration.
On a more personal scale, the first public telephone hot lines were operated by volunteer-staffed crisis intervention centers, providing instant assistance to people contemplating suicide or teetering on the edges of reality during bad LSD trips.
Among the earliest such lines were those run by the Los Angeles-based Poison Control and Suicide Prevention Centers, both of which kicked off service in the late 1950s.
“At the time,” recalls registered nurse Frances Weindler, who has served at the poison center for 35 years, “we didn’t have an ‘800' number because they didn’t exist.”
With the advent of toll-free service in the late 1960s and the subsequent technological revolution that allowed organizations to operate a single nationwide “800" listing, the numbers and range of hot line services exploded.
Among the longer-lasting lines are those operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Whirlpool and General Electric corporations, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Assn.
Emergencies have created their own need for hot lines, such as the ongoing Northridge earthquake disaster assistance line operated by federal representatives.
Then there are seasonal services such as the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which answers consumer questions each November and December on the thawing, cooking and carving of holiday fowl.
Turkey Talk-Line spokeswoman Beth Day would not directly address why the service is available only two months a year, whereas other meat-related lines are staffed 12 months a year by pork producers and the federal government.
“I can’t really comment except to say that the Turkey Talk-Line has always traditionally been open in November and December--although we’re seeing an increase in turkey consumption year-round.”
In the 1992 presidential primary campaign, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. took the concept of the hot line into the political arena, turning himself into a walking pitchman for his “800" number to raise funds for his race against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
There have even been hot lines created by corporations in connection with court settlements of ethics violations cases. The B. Manischewitz Co. Ethics Hotline was established after the New Jersey-based firm pleaded no contest to an indictment charging it with conspiring to fix the price of Passover matzo.
Manischewitz compliance officer Jim Esposito said last week that no improper business practices have been reported to the company over the hot line in the past 18 months.
“We’ve got some calls, but (mainly) just hang-ups,” he said.
In general, however, hot lines are so popular that one San Diego entrepreneur pays thousands of dollars a month in phone bills for the use of about 250 “vanity” numbers--"800" numbers that spell something (such as 800-HOMELES)--which he can then sublet for profits.
Many hot lines, in keeping with tradition, are answered by live operators. But others offer only a recorded message and an opportunity for callers to leave their own taped messages.
The latter is true for the O.J. Simpson tip hot line, as well as the National Hotline for Sexual Addiction based in Wickenburg, Ariz. For whatever reason, calls to the sexual addiction line went unanswered for a day and a half last week, until the director himself returned a reporter’s inquiry.
“We don’t have enough help available to have people man the phones,” Ron Arrington explained, saying his line was designed more to provide information than crisis intervention.
In many cases, hot lines give callers the opportunity to remain anonymous, a key factor in their unceasing popularity.
“Basic research shows that people self-disclose more on the telephone than in person,” said USC communication professor A. Michael Noll. “The electronic distance allows more personal verbal intimacy. . . . The fact you’re physically anonymous gives you a sense of being more secure and hence you can disclose more.”
Adding to the allure is the fact that phoning an “800" number is free to callers--although organizations that have the numbers generally pay 15 cents to 25 cents a minute for the calls they receive, according to AT&T.;
The most essential toll-free line is actually a non-800 number: 911, for police, fire and paramedic emergency assistance.
“It’s the most elementary of hot lines,” AT&T;'s Hoyt said. “Most kids from age 3 are programmed to use it.”
In Los Angeles, dozens, if not hundreds, of hot lines for personal and social problems are available--and over the years the services provided have become increasingly specialized.
The Pacific Bell Smart Yellow Pages community directory lists “800" numbers for mental health centers, AIDS information, missing children sightings, emergency shelter and food programs, drug dependency, foster care and statewide self-help referrals to support groups, among others. Many organizations offer further specialized services to Spanish speakers and the deaf.
For battering victims alone, there are about 20 hot lines in Los Angeles County.
The specialization can help nip some problems in the bud, experts say. For example, a troubled youth who gets help from a teen line or a youth crisis line may never become depressed enough to dial the Suicide Prevention Center.
But public funding of crisis lines has declined significantly since the Reagan era and its budget cuts began in the early 1980s, experts say. In recent years, some hot lines have gone out of business and others have had trouble hanging on.
One of the worst crises for Southern California crisis centers came in 1992 when the underfunded Orange County Poison Center folded and the Los Angeles Poison Control Center, which now handles Orange County queries as well as those from six other Southern California counties, almost shut down as well. The Los Angeles facility was finally saved by linking up with an existing drug information center at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
The Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, once a stand-alone agency with $1.3 million in annual county funding, now receives one-tenth that amount and remains in business only because it has come under the umbrella of Family Service of Los Angeles, according to center director Jay Nagdimon.
The agency’s budget is so tight that it cannot even afford an “800" line, Nagdimon said, forcing callers from much of the county to pay toll charges. Because of a shortage of volunteers, he added, the hot line is not always adequately staffed.
Indeed, one afternoon last week, a caller got a busy signal when repeatedly dialing the suicide hot line number for nearly two hours.
Nagdimon conceded that the inability to get through on the hot line is a serious problem, but the only advice he could offer was: “People need to have patience and keep trying and we’ll get to them as soon as we can.”
A concern of traditional hot line centers is the proliferation of agencies with “800" numbers that serve primarily as intake vehicles for addiction treatment centers rather than as crisis intervention services.
“For-profit hospitals use these ‘800' counseling numbers as a front,” Nagdimon said. “It’s really unfortunate, because we can’t compete with them.”
One for-profit health firm based in Ventura County has 18 separate “800" hot lines coming into the same facility for problems including alcohol and drug abuse, suicidal feelings, sexual trauma, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“You name it, we can treat it for you,” said Michelle Towers, a spokeswoman for Primary Health Management Systems.
Towers said the same phone counselors are responsible for handling incoming calls on all the firm’s hot lines, which are listed in phone directories under such headings as Suicide Intervention or Drug Abuse and Assistance Help Line and Hospital Referrals.
Towers said the firm’s counselors “have an overall kind of training” and are trained to refer callers to the intake department for the company’s Anacapa by the Sea multi-addiction and mental health center in Port Hueneme.
“We wanted ‘800' lines so people nationwide could contact us,” Towers said “So we bought out several ‘800' numbers.
“If (callers) have insurance or can pay cash, we try to see if we can help them get into Anacapa. If they have no income whatsoever, we try to refer them to places in their state or county run by the county where they can get help for no money or a small amount.”
Informing the Public
Years ago, hot lines almost exclusively provided emergency assistance, referrals and direction. Now they dispense information and serve as tip lines for issues and businesses of all sorts. Among the kinds of lines:
* National Hot Line for Sexual Addiction, provides information and referrals for the sexually compulsive. (800) 321-2066
* Butterball Turkey Talk Line, open each November and December to answer questions on how to prepare a holiday turkey. (800) 323-4848
* B. Manischewitz Co. Ethics Hot Line, to report complaints about possible improper business practices by employees of the matzo-making giant. (800) 424-6266
* National HIV and AIDS Hot Line, provides information on how the deadly disease is transmitted and the addresses of testing centers. (800) 342-2437