GENERAL ARTICLES

LOOking for Trouble

ARTHUR LOWE April 1 1934
GENERAL ARTICLES

LOOking for Trouble

ARTHUR LOWE April 1 1934

LOOking for Trouble

ARTHUR LOWE

IN THE BOOKS of the telephone company he is listed as Mr. So-and-so of the maintenance department. To you perhaps he is just the telephone man. to others he is the trouble shooter; but after spending three days with him behind the scenes I have come to the conclusion that he is a nerve specialist on a grand scale, for his job is to keep the nerves of a city functioning. And that is no small order, for a city’s nervous system is the most complex thing man has yet created.

If you were to talk to him about his job he would probably describe it in such prosaic terms that it would sound like any other job. To understand the glamor of it and the adventure, one needs to know something of the vast and intricate nervous system which he must always keep keyed up to ^

perfection. '

The system consists primarily of telephones, telephone wires and exchanges. Stated thus, it sounds simple enough; but it is not so simple if you will visualize, say, 200,000 telephones, 200.000 pairs of wires linking them with the exchanges, and automatic switchboards capable of making the almost infinite number of connections possible in linking together any two of those 200,000 telephones. Neither is it simple when you consider that certain parts of the apparatus upon which the system depends are made with such microscopical precision that a few grains of dust will throw them out of order. And yet in spite of all this complexity and gossamer-like fineness, the service is kept so nearly perfect that most of us have ceased to regard it as dependent upon the human element at all. We think of it as a Robot, tireless and efficient; forgetful that its efficiency is dependent upon the unwearying vigilance of the trouble shooter.

The Umbrella Menace

TN A CITY, two, three or four exchanges, each capable of serving ten thousand subscribers, are grouped together in a single unit. This unit has its own repair department, consisting of special operators, test men and trouble shooters. When a report is received that a telephone is not working properly, the special operator takes from a file at her side the subscriber’s card, which gives details of his telephone equipment and a record of any previous complaints he may have made. On the back she enters up the difficulty reported and passes the card on to the test man.

The test man is an armchair specialist. He sits in front of a dizzily complicated switchboard and diagnoses trouble in a way which strikes the uninitiated as being mainly psychic.

By plugging in such-and-such a line and watching the voltmeter on his left, he is able to tell whether the condenser on the subscriber's set is working, or whether there is a short somewhere, or whether the induction coil is functioning properly, and so on. He is responsible, too, for assigning work to the outdoor men.

As soon as an outdoor man finishes a job he rings in to the test-board and makes his report.

1 he test man then looks over his cards, selects one in the trouble shooter’s neighborhood, gives him the cause of complaint and such information as he himself has been able to glean from the test-board. This information is sometimes an accurate diagnosis of the trouble, but more often it is merely a suggestion as to w'here the trouble shooter should look.

Seems to me there might be a short in the cord, he will say. “See if they’ve been standing an umbrella against it.’’

The umbrella is one of the trouble shooter’s ancient enemies. Many subscribers, forgetful

of the fact that water is an excellent conductor of electricity, will stand a wet umbrella in a corner where it can come in contact with the telephone cord. More often than not the dampness soaks through the insulation of the cord and shortcircuits the two wires inside.

Like other successful specialists, the trouble shooter must possess, to begin with, certain natural gifts. The most important of these is one familiar to all readers of detective fiction—the ability to make deductions from flimsy scraps

of evidence. Some peculiar condition develops in a telephone, let us say. Any one of a dozen different things may be causing that condition, but the trouble shooter, by assembling his evidence and weighing this factor against that, is usually able to say which of the dozen it is. In addition to having this flair for deduction he must be a good mechanic able to make repairs quickly, must be able to keep a cool head under all sorts of conditions, must lie painstakingly thorough, and must be tactful.

“I low do you find such men and how do you train them?” I asked one of the company’s outside supervisors. “We take on lads leaving school who already have some electrical knowledge,” he said. “These lads are sent out to help the installation crews and are given a thorough grounding in that work. As their ability increases they are moved up grade by grade until they become competent installers. Those who have shown themselves made of the right timber are transferred to the maintenance department, where they undergo further instruction with the repair men. The company, too, arranges lectures and courses for them. They are not only taught how to look for trouble and how to repair it, but they are given lessons in tact.” I raised my eyebrows.

What I mean is,” he went on, “they must know something about psychology. It stands to reason that with two hundred thousand subscribers we are bound to run into some queer ones, and the queer ones have a way of making complaints atxmt the telephone service which are unjustified. Now let’s suppose that a trouble shooter is sent to one of these queer subscribers and finds everything okay. If he tells the subscriber there’s nothing wrong there’ll be a complaint in next morning as sure as fate, so he doesn’t do that. He tinkers around a bit and when he’s finished he says: ‘Well, Mrs. Jones, it was a wonder you were able to use the phone at all, but I’ve fixed it now and you won’t have any more difficulties.’ And the funny part is she doesn’t not for a month, anyway. That’s what I call being tactful.”

To me it was further proof of the similarity between a trouble shooter’s job and a nerve specialist’s. Both, it seems, can work wonders simply by having a reassuring bedside manner.

One rejxiir man gave me an excellent example of the way in which a situation was saved by tact. He was called out on a Sunday morning to repair a telephone in a fashionable part of the city. When he arrived at the house he was met by a woman in négligée who was nursing in her arms a Persian kitten. At great length she explained how the kitten had become tangled up in the telephone cord and how it had finally pulled the telephone from its stand and smashed the receiver. The repair man was about to get on with his work and the lady of the house was about to leave when a little girl came running into the room.

“Hello, Mr. Telephone Man,” she said, and then, pointing to the broken receiver: “My

daddy did that last night at the party.”

“It’s funny what queer imaginations children have,” the repair man said, when the little girl had been shoo'd away.

The repair department gives a twenty-four hour service and a trouble shooter may be called out at any time in an emergency. Frequently such an emergency will arise during a storm when outside wires have been carried away. Then it is that Mr. So-and-so of the maintenance department must keep a cool head and carry out his work under difficulties and often in the face of danger.

Recently, in one Canadian city, an outside cable w'as struck by lightning and twenty-five telephones were put out of action. It was at night and the only member of the repair department who could be reached had been off sick during the day. As soon as he heard there were doctors among the twenty-five subscribers Continued on page 71

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cut off from service he volunteered to go out and ‘‘shoot the trouble,” for a doctor’s telephone is considered almost sacrosanct by the trouble department.

When he arrived on the job one of the worst storms of the year was raging. He felt weak and ill. and in the darkness everything appeared confused, chaotic. Lashed by the wind and rain he fought his way up the slippery poles, so that it seemed he was fighting a formless, unseen thing intent upon his destruction. Time after time he was nearly tom from his hold, but he struggled on, doing his unheroic job. By morning every line was working.

Squirrel on the Line

WHEREVER possible the telephone company uses underground cables, but, although storm hazards are thus avoided, new sources of trouble develop. Of these the most common is electrolysis or the gradual wearing of a hole in the lead covering of the cable by stray electrical discharges. Such a hole admits water and causes short-circuiting of the wires inside, which is a serious business when it is considered that a trunk cable carries 1,200 pairs of wires.

Electrolysis is by no means the only cause of cable trouble, however. Not long ago. on a downtown street in Toronto some workmen were making an excavation. Somehow they managed to cut a cable, and investigation showed it was the cable serving the Toronto Stock Exchange. Fortunately the accident took place at noon on .Saturday. By the time the market opened on Monday trouble shooters had spliced together the hundreds of severed wires and both tickers and telephones were working as usual.

Cable trouble can be located within a few feet by special instruments kept in a cable test office serving the whole of a city. Should a line be reported out of order and should the fault be found somewhere in the cable, it would obviously be impracticable to open the cable and test all 1,200 pairs in order to find the one out of commission. To provide for such a contingency, every cable contains spares so that a telephone out of order can be linked with a new pair of wires.

In the case of overhead cables, which sometimes carry as many as 200 lines, squirrels are a frequent source of trouble. Apparently believing that the shiny lead covering should enclose a tasty kernel, they nibble through it and leave the silk-covered wires exposed to the rain. This usually results in plenty of trouble for all those in the squirrels’ neighborhood and hectic days for the special operator.

But in spite of squirrels and electrolysis and a thousand other hazards, the main source of trouble is the subscriber himself.

“Only yesterday,” said a repair man, “I was sent to a business-man’s office. He was boiling mad because both his telephones, which stood on the same desk, had gone out of action at the same time. I looked them

over and found he had hung up the receivers on the wrong hooks. When I showed him what had happened, instead of being grateful he was madder than ever.”

Trouble shooters. I gathered, meet their full quota of unreasonable people. On one Canadian exchange there is a woman subscriber who complains unfailingly, week after week, about the service she is receiving. Unfailingly a trouble shooter is sent round to deal with the complaint, and just as unfailingly she refuses to admit him.

The dialing system, although it has thrown the responsibility for wrong numbers on the shoulders of the subscriber himself, is a frequent source of trouble. Some people will dial with a pencil and leave the pencil in the hole as the dial returns to its former position, thus retarding its speed. As the whole working of the dial is based upon its timing, the pencil habit is a fruitful source of wrong numbers.

And washing!

“You’d be surprised at the number of people who hang their washing on the telephone line in the cellar,” the trouble shooter said. “The result, of course, is that water soaks through the insulation and causes a short. Which reminds me that people frequently complain after a fire that they couldn’t use the telephone. In such cases we nearly always find that the telephone wouldn’t work because somebody threw a bucket of water over it.”

Memo pad clips which prevent the arm of the receiver coming up when the receiver is lifted have resulted in many hurry-up calls for a trouble shooter. And the gentleman, desiring privacy, who leaves the receiver off the hook is another source of grief, for by doing so he ties up part of the automatic switchboard equipment and may prevent others as well as himself from receiving service. As soon as the trouble department discovers such a case the line is temporarily disconnected and all calls for that particular number go to a special operator.

Deaf people constitute a challenge to the ingenuity of the telephone company. Sometimes their telephones are fitted with amplifiers, but in cases where they are too deaf to hear a bell the problem is more complicated. In one instance an old lady, | very deaf, was given the type of bell used on a taxi lot—exceedingly loud and powerful. She could hear it beautifully and for a few days everything was fine, but then the trouble department started receiving complaints from the old lady’s neighbors. They described the bell as a public nuisance and demanded its removal. For a little while the trouble shooter sent out on the job was nonplussed, but finally he fitted the old lady up with a flash system and now she spends her days happily, watching for signals.

Trouble, you say? Well, that’s his job— looking for it. And when have you heard a professional man complaining of trouble? For that’s what he is—a nerve specialist— and his patient is a sprawling city.