It looks like any other office building from the outside. But step inside and you quickly learn that Maryland's new telephone relay center is really a window on the world: the world of the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The $4 million, 25,000-square-foot facility is set up to handle calls between the hearing and the non-hearing or hearing-disabled, which is a feat considering that these people are unable to communicate by telephone now without special equipment.
Maryland's relay center, which officially opens today, is one of the most technologically advanced in the United States. But while the brains of the center may lie in its New Age computer system, the heart of the operation is pure flesh and blood.
Operators at the center, which is run by US Sprint, are trained to act as go-betweens for hearing and non-hearing callers, invoking the proper tone -- happiness, anger or sorrow -- as required.
A hearing-impaired caller can reach the center by dialing toll-free (800) 735-2258 on a home telecommunications device and typing in the name and number of the person he or she wants to reach. The information shows up on computer screens at the center, where operators relay messages verbally to hearing recipients.
The process is reversed for a hearing person calling a non-hearing friend.
The idea behind the relay center, located in the Seton Industrial Park in Baltimore, is to give all Marylanders equal access to the telephone. But reaching that goal has attracted some criticism, chiefly because of the cost associated with erecting the center and providing around-the-clock service.
The state's Department of General Services created a controversy last summer when it began charging Maryland phone customers 45 cents a month -- the highest in the nation for a state-run relay center -- to pay for the project.
The Public Service Commission logged more than 1,000 complaints in the span of a few weeks before Gov. William Donald Schaefer put pressure on the department to lower the charge.
The department slashed the charge to 31 cents in September. On May 1 it will fall to 17 cents.
Although the center will receive its official christening today by Mr. Schaefer and a contingent of state and US Sprint officials, it has been open for business since April 1.
According to Lori Bartels, the center's manager, the center's 120 operators are fielding about 2,200 calls a day. The volume is expected to increase to 3,200 calls a day by the end of the year.
The relay center also uses a state-of-the-art system developed by US Sprint. The system can determine in a few milliseconds if a call is coming from a hearing or non-hearing person.
When a call is received, an electronic "footprint" of the call is recorded and stored. When the caller places a call through the center again, the system will automatically recognize the number and answer in the correct mode.