GENERAL ARTICLES

"Z-8211"

Ths is the Ottawa Government's phone number and it handles 75,000 calls a day

WILFRID SANDERS February 1 1942
GENERAL ARTICLES

"Z-8211"

Ths is the Ottawa Government's phone number and it handles 75,000 calls a day

WILFRID SANDERS February 1 1942

"Z-8211"

Ths is the Ottawa Government's phone number and it handles 75,000 calls a day

WILFRID SANDERS

SUPPOSING you took the entire population of a town the size of Sarnia, dumped it in Ottawa, gave it office space and by far the biggest job in the country to run. There might be complications.

Supposing, then, you were a telephone company, responsible for making this huge organization telephonically articulate. The complications might seem to you to be insurmountable, and you might be excused for becoming a bit overwrought.

But, with some qualifications, this is the equivalent of what has happened. It is the equivalent cf the situation which faces the Ottawa branch of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada—but nobody has given any outward evidence of becoming overwrought about it.

If you doubt this, take a run up to Ottawa everybody else and his uncle is. Go to a telephone and dial 2-8211. Tell the pleasant-voiced operator that you want to speak to Joe Doakes, who you think is with the Department of Munitions and Supply.

Although about 4,500 government telephones are now growing where only about 2,000 grew in 1939, the odds are overwhelming that you will be talking to Joe in a very few seconds. If Joe started work yesterday, it wouldn’t make much difference, although he is only one of 25,000 civil employees.

There is no evidence in this smooth service of the revolutionary growth with which the telephone system has been suddenly faced. It is this contrast which makes the story of “2-8211” an intriguing one.

The telephone today is essential to the carrying on of business. In Ottawa, where the biggest business the country has ever had is being conducted with feverish tempo, the telephone is, in a very real sense, the nervous system of Canada’s war effort—and you know what happens to a man if his nervous system breaks down.

Housed in a more or less secret place in Ottawa, the special Government switchboard serves nearly all Government departments, important exceptions being Government House, the Prime Minister’s office, the Bank of Canada, the Experimental Fa m and the Dominion Observatory.

This switchboard serves as many telephones as that of the cities of St. Thomas or Sarnia. When this reporter visited it, thirteen operators were hard at work, their twenty-six weaving arms (a striking sight when viewed along the length of the board) manipulating the slim wares along which flows the wordage which runs Canada’s war effort.

Before the war this board was handling an aver-

age of 4,000 incoming utside calls a day. Today an average of nearly 15,000 calls, nearly four times as many, flow through it in twenty-four hours. This figure does not, of course, include the many many thousands of interdepartmental calls, as these are all handled automatically by the consolidated dial system. Such calls average between 35,000 and 40,000 local to local calls plus approximately 20,000 outgoing city calls per day.

No Busy Signals

THIS IS the growth of the Government switchboard alone. To appreciate the job which the telephone company has done in coping with this growth, it should be viewed against the background of the phenomenal increase of Ottawa city’s own telephone usage. In the last two years the number of new telephones installed in Canada’s capital has averaged 5,000 per year—more than fourteen new telephones each day, Sundays included.

Also in the picture is the difficulty, under wartime conditions, of obtaining the highly-specialized equipment needed for each telephone connection.

The only way the company has been able to keep up with this development is to keep ahead of it. M. B. Hamilton, district manager of the Ottawa exchange, produced graphic evidence of this. The company keeps charts of potential consumer demand and equipment supplies. Whenever the chart line representing potential demand creeps close to that representing future supply, the supply line is raised. Thus when the demand becomes actual the equipment is on hand to meet it.

In a recent week in the capital, during which he used the 2-8211 number many scores of times per day, the writer never once heard a busy signal

nor failed to get a response promptly. More than this, he discovered he could get the Government operator without even dialing the final “one” in 2-8211. Flushed with his discovery, and full of ideas of multiplying the number of seconds wasted in dialing this extra digit by the payroll of the civil service, he hurried to Mr. Hamilton’s office. By the time he got there he had, mentally, saved his country many thousands of dollars annually by eliminating this unnecessary digit. But it was all rather an anticlimax. The technical explanation was complicated but convincing. It involved those highschool headaches, permutations and combinations, and boiled down to the fact that a city of Ottawa’s size needed a five digit system if there were to be enough combinations (or was it permutations?) to go around. The Government number had no alternative but to follow suit.

Either by good luck or foresight, the Government’s telephone system was placed on the consolidated dial basis away back in 1937. Up to that time, each department had had its own switchboard, and its own central exchange number. If such an inadequate system had prevailed when war broke out, it is difficult to see how confusion could have been avoided. As it was, the change in beat from peace to wartime tempo was taken smoothly. Today the company is expanding its building, and facilities—again keeping that supply line ahead of demand.

The Government switchboard and other equipment is furnished on a rental basis, staffed, operated and maintained by the Bell Telephone Company on a cost-plus basis. Because of the fact that through this board flows highly secret and potent conversation, most of which Herr Schicklgruber

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"2-8211"

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and his cohorts in Berlin would give a lot to hear, company officials were asked if any special precautions were taken to swear in the operators. Have you ever asked an insurance man if he thought his company was solvent? The effect was the same. Secrecy, we were firmly told is, and always has been, a fundamental policy of the company. Even if, by accident, an operator could listen in on a conversation, she would be less likely to repeat it than a King Scout would be to trip up an old lady in a crowded street. It would be against all training and precedent. The importance of secrecy is drilled into every employee. Since the outbreak of war, the fact has been stressed again and again, and is the keynote of posters all around the company’s buildings. Moreover, watching the busy hands of the girls along the switchboard, one gets the very definite impression that if any one of them hesitated for a minute to listen in, she would stand out like a statue on the floor of a jive hot spot. Any visitor to the building must, of course convince a highly-sceptical armed guard that he has legitimate business to transact.

Of the 15,000 incoming calls handled daily by this board, about 1,000 are long-distance calls. From January 1 to Dec. 8, 1941, no less than 1,410,000 long-distance calls, from Aaron, Ala., to Zwicky, B.C., poured through Ottawa’s city longdistance board. The prewar daily average has grown from 2,800 outand-in calls to 6,000 at the present time. Most of these calls had to do, directly or indirectly, with beating the Hun. Today Ottawa has 160 long-distance channels from the city —about forty to Montreal and thirty-five to Toronto. While the writer was watching the long-distance board, in midafternoon, every channel to Toronto was in use. The telephone company is devoting a great deal of advertising effort to persuade private persons to put their calls in after business hours. It is quite conceivable that before this war is over, use of long-distance telephones in key areas may be rationed,

but this is not an immediate possibility.

While the long-distance facilities of Ottawa during business hours are at present strained almost to capacity, further development of the “carrier” system may ease the situation. These carriers are tricky little devices whereby more than one conversation may be carried on over identical wires. The technical explanation of how they work is complicated, but in laymen’s terms it is a matter of using different frequencies. Two or more radio studios can broadcast from the same building and the reason you can separate them on your radio is because each uses a different frequency. Adapt the same process to the telephone or telegraph and you have the carrier. The newly-developed carrier “K” can handle up to twelve voice channels for each two pairs of wires. By use of such carriers the number of new wires required between centres can be, and is being materially reduced.

Ottawa is the heart of Canada’s war effort. It is awesome to speculate on what would happen to this effort if Ottawa were “blacked out,” in a telephonic sense, for even a short period. Fortunately, it is almost inconceivable that those weaving arms at the government switchboard would be forced to stop connecting A’s voice with B’s ear. Telephone officials cannot visualize a blizzard of sufficient intensity to cut off all channels to and from the capital. If service between any two points is disrupted, connections may be made over alternative routes. Sabotage is, of course, a danger, but very special precautions are taken against this, one of these being to preclude publication of what precautions are taken against it. In any event, your successful saboteur would have to do more than destroy a bit of mechanism. He would have to break down that spirit of service as applied to “special war work” which is so apparent, from the guard at the door, to the hundreds of operators and the steadily-working repair, maintenance and installation men.

All this is 2-8211.