Phone service for 5 million is disrupted Emergency lines jammed

June 27, 1991|By David Michael Ettlin Sun reporters Peter Jensen, John Rivera, Marcia Myers and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Marylanders from A to Z found their world a little bit smaller and a lot more inconvenient yesterday as telephone service in many areas was reduced to busy signals.

In emergencies, some people found it more difficult to reach 911 -- and hundreds of other callers jammed 911 switchboards just to see if the system worked or to find out why their phones didn't, authorities said.

At an animal hospital on Falls Road, veterinarians spent hours trying to reach a consulting neurologist to help examine a dog hit by a car. And about 20 people with ailing pets who were unable to call the hospital brought them in without appointments, veterinarian Kim Hammond said.

For Zorba's Carry Out on Harford Road, said owner Samson Haritides, the telephone disruption likely cost several hundred dollars in lost business.

"The lines would ring once, twice, we go to pick it up and nobody's there," Mr. Haritides said. "We had people say they tried to reach us all day, and then they walked down."

Henry Black, assistant communications director for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said all of the state's 911 telephone systems were operating. But with Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. circuits knocked out or jammed, some people reported they had to try several times to reach an emergency dispatcher, Mr. Black said.

In radio and television broadcasts, police officials warned people against dialing 911 for telephone information or to see whether it worked as the number of calls to emergency lines doubled and tripled after the telephone glitch occurred about 11:40 a.m.

Comparing figures for Tuesday and yesterday, Baltimore County director John A. Thompson said the number of calls increased from 104 to 333 between noon and 1 p.m., and from 91 to 363 in the next hour.

While many calls to 911 lines waited until a dispatcher answered and allowed that they were "just testing," authorities reported, others would disconnect as soon as they heard a ring.

But a simple ring was enough to record the caller's number and force a dispatcher to dial back and ascertain whether anyone needed help. That was not easy, as some dispatchers had to enlist the help of the telephone company in rerouting the calls out of the state and back again to get through.

Police agencies also had a hard time reaching each other -- at least by telephone. Instead, they used police radio networks to reach across county lines.

And the statewide emergency management system set up shop in its Pikesville headquarters, bringing in representatives of key public safety agencies to assure full communication should an emergency arise.

But it was just plain folks who mostly needed full communication yesterday -- and for many it proved to be sporadic and frustrating.

At Machoian Poultry, a fried-chicken delivery business in Parole, sales were off substantially, said manager Ann Malane.

"Every penny helps, and when you're down 20 percent because of something out of your control. . . .

"It's just hard to understand how a couple of computers can put Maryland, Virginia and D.C. out of whack like this," she said.

Calling a taxicab, pizzerias, florist shops -- even calling mom -- was no longer a simple matter.

But it did make some business transactions more personable. Robert DiPasquale, for one, found himself literally reaching out to touch someone.

"We just couldn't contact the customers," said Mr. DiPasquale, proprietor of DiPasquale Wholesale Food Distributors on Gough Street. "So I had to jump in the car and see quite a few of them for deliveries for tomorrow."

And that took a good four hours, he said.

"Personal relations, you know -- once you get there, you have to spend some time with them."

Some business owners were left wondering whether burglar alarm systems that use automatic telephone dialing systems to alert the police would still work. The answer was not simple: Systems that dial numbers out of state or across the street might work, while those calling offices a few miles away might not.

For telephone paging companies, the C&P disruption apparently struck at the heart of their busi- ness.

Tom Ditonto, customer support coordinator for American Paging Inc., said he had no idea how many customers were upset. "Unfortunately, no one could get through except on our 800 number, so we won't reap the full benefit of this until tomorrow," he said.

The telephone crisis was fully over by 9:30 p.m., and the Falls Road Animal Hospital had contacted the neurological specialist.

NTC The patient -- a female mixed-breed terrier named Brodie with a fractured back -- would not need surgery, but "it will be a very long recovery," said veterinarian Charles A. Weiss. "Fortunately for her sake, all the nerves are OK."

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