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‘Operator … ’
A few facts about telephone operators:
•According to “PBS Kids,” the first operators were teenage boys who had done well working in telegraph offices, but they didn’t have the patience or dedication needed and were quickly replaced by women.
•Operators had to be unmarried, aged 17-26, and have long arms (to reach the top of the switchboard), “PBS Kids” says. They also had to be white and non-Jewish.
•For decades, every single call, local or long-distance, was handled by an operator.
•There were about 319,000 operators in 1998, and their numbers had already dropped significantly.
•Now there are fewer than 15,000 operators, according to government estimates.
•Outside of phone companies, most operators work in hotels and hospitals.
•For decades, operators functioned as a 911 service – emergency callers had to dial police, fire or ambulance numbers directly, or call the operator and ask to be connected.
•According to 911dispatch.com, having one single, universal number to call for emergencies began in 1937 with Britain’s 999 system. It later spread to Australia and Canada.
•In 1967, Indiana Congressman J. Edward Roush, D-5th, from Huntington, proposed a similar system for the United States. On Jan. 12, 1968, AT&T, parent of the Bell systems, announced at a news conference in Roush’s Washington office that it will begin just such a system, using 911 as the number.
•On March 1, 1968, Huntington became home to the first Bell 911 system in the nation, chosen because it was Roush’s hometown. It was the first Bell 911 system in the country – but not the first 911 system.
•The first 911 call was actually made two weeks earlier in Haleyville, Ala. The head of Alabama Telephone saw AT&T’s January announcement and decided to beat AT&T to the punch with his own system.
•The first Phase 1 system, where cellphone calls to 911 displayed the caller’s phone number and the address of the cell tower receiving the signal, debuted in March 1998 – in Allen County.
Source: PBSkids.org, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 911dispatch.com
Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
When Helen Didion, now 71, started working for Indiana Bell Telephone in 1958, there were 200 switchboard operators in Fort Wayne.

Once vital, now obsolete

Operators used to save lives, now they’re nearly gone

This switchboard is from the 1930s.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
The switchboard was the standard for decades.

– They were such an integral part of our existence that it was hard to imagine life without them. It’s even harder to imagine now how they disappeared.

For decades, you could not make a telephone call without an operator physically putting the call through. Then it was only long distance calls that needed that familiar “Operator … ” to connect you. Then such service was only needed to make a collect call or to make sure a line was working.

And then … it has come to this: Most of us don’t even know whether telephone operators still exist.

We put the question to Patricia Amendola, communications manager for Frontier Communications.

“Well, we have call center representatives,” Amendola said.

But if you pick up the phone and dial zero does someone answer?

“To be honest, I don’t know because I’ve not done that,” she admitted.

And we’re not picking on Frontier. We called Verizon Wireless, too, and asked spokesman Tom Pica what would happen if you dialed zero on your cellphone.

“I don’t know, I’ve never done it,” Pica said. “I can’t remember the last time I ever did try that.”

He put us on hold, then tried it, and said he got a recording saying whom to call for different needs. We tried it and got no answer at all.

The answer is yes, telephone operators still exist, but their numbers are a tiny fraction of what they were just a couple of decades ago.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report says numbers will continue to decline and that customer service, not connecting calls, is now an “operator’s” primary function, so familiarity with computers and foreign language skills are big assets.

That report was published in 1998, when there were about 319,000 telephone operators nationwide, and already only one in four of those were at telephone companies. The rest were at businesses like hotels and hospitals.

Almost all of them have since been replaced by a computer voice telling you to “Press 1 for …” The Bureau of Labor Statistics now estimates there are less than 15,000 operator jobs.

‘We were vital’

In 1958, when Helen Didion started working for what was then Indiana Bell Telephone, there were 200 operators in Fort Wayne alone.

Even by 1958 – when Dwight Eisenhower was president – technology was already replacing human operators. Those 200 operators in Fort Wayne were for long-distance calls; local calls were already handled by an automatic switch. Still, if you wanted to call your cousin in Kokomo, the first thing you heard on the line would be “Operator … ”

“You couldn’t get in or out of town without a live person,” Didion said. And that live person was vital to the phone company – when your call began, she would punch the time on a call ticket, then punch it again when the call ended. That was how you got billed for the call.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the old boards where an operator physically plugged in a cord to connect one line to another were replaced by electronics and about a year later that the billing could be handled automatically, she said.

It’s hard to imagine how important operators once were, but Didion tells a story about when she was “very young and very stupid” in the early 1970s. She was a supervisor then, and one day the room where the operators worked began filling with smoke.

“Someone said, ‘Let’s go,’ and I said, ‘No, they haven’t given us permission,’ ” she said, laughing and rolling her eyes. “It was a different mentality.”

It turns out the batteries in the basement of the building had caught fire. But it wasn’t just a fear of reprimand that kept the operators in their seats, it was also a sense of responsibility.

“If there was an emergency, it was us that would have to connect the call,” Didion says. “We were vital.”

They were vital in other ways, too.

“We would have Bob Sievers’ calls all set up in the morning,” Didion said, “you bounced him from one to another bang, bang, bang, just like that.”

Sievers was the legendary host on WOWO 1190 AM, and because it was a live radio show he would need to make his morning phone calls as quickly as he could, gathering news. The operators would have all the calls set up for him before he picked up the phone so they could just connect him, one call after another.

“He was such a nice man,” Didion said. “I really enjoyed doing his calls.”

Sievers died in 2007.

Didion, who initially retired in 1993 and then came back as an independent contractor to train others for six years, looks back on her career fondly, but she is no slave to the past. She’s now 71.

“When you get to this age, and things were that long ago, everything looks rosy, doesn’t it?” she asks. “But this is an outstanding time to live. We have iPhones and Twinkle Phones and what-have-you. I love it.”

And what kind of phone does the retired operator have?

“I have a cellphone from Verizon,” she says laughing. “But I still have a corded landline – when everything else goes out, that will work.”

‘Why they call’

Frontier Communications, which has about 7 million landlines in 27 states, has about 45 operators in its office in Parkersburg, W.Va., who handle calls for the entire country (there are also two smaller offices for redundancy).

Though they help people who have trouble placing a call, help those having trouble reaching 911, help people with disabilities who have trouble dialing, handle third-number billing, collect calls and pay phone calls, up to nine out of every 10 calls are for something operators never did before – directory assistance.

You still dial zero for the operator and 411 for directory assistance – and there might be a charge for the latter, depending on your calling plan – but the same operators answer both calls.

Christina Hayhurst, one of the remaining operators working in Parkersburg, says she loves the job, even if when she started in 1993 there were almost three times as many operators in her workplace as there are now.

“You talk to so many different people every day,” Hayhurst said. Her roots go deeper than that, though: Her mother was a telephone operator, too, starting in 1969.

For her, it’s about that human connection.

“We have customers where that is why they call,” Hayhurst said. “There’s one customer from Toledo, she probably calls 50 times a day. She asks for the same number every time. She likes that human interaction.”

One time, Hayhurst said, an elderly customer called who had fallen but was adamant she did not want an ambulance because she could not afford it. Hayhurst was able to find and call a neighbor to help her.

Supervisor Sherry Crutchfield points out that a few decades ago, calling the operator would have been the only option.

“The operator truly was the lifeline; there was no 911 emergency service back then,” Crutchfield said. “There’s probably not an operator that worked a cord board that didn’t at one time make a call that saved a life.”

Sometimes what people need is just another voice at the end of the line, even if it’s technically a stranger’s voice.

“The all-night period is when the more interesting calls come in, that’s when it’s really fun to work,” Crutchfield said. “That’s when you meet all the characters. The people who work all night know these customers. They know their voice and the customer knows them.”

Crutchfield started on a cord board in 1975.

“The change from then to now is mind-boggling sometimes,” she said.

Frontier officials say they are committed to keeping live operators. Anyone who’s been lost in the branches of an automated phone tree trying to find a human – any human – can understand why.

“I’ve participated on teams where we did analysis on what customers want,” Crutchfield said. “And what’s most important to customers is they want a live person. They don’t like the automated services.”

dstockman@jg.net

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