Gisborne TMX – Part 1

The Gisborne TMX (Toll Manual Exchange) was located on the first floor of the “new” exchange building in Read’s Quay when I worked there in the late 1970s.

In keeping with the ‘design for expansion’ philosophy of the time, the “toll room” (as we called it) was a huge well-lit room with Post Office standard linoleum flooring. Entering through the double doors near the top of the stairs, a visitor walked past the Toll Manager’s office and across an expanse of floor with the ubiquitous metal lockers to the left, past a few well-tended pot plants to the toll board and supervisors’ desks. On the right, near the supervisor’s desks were the standard time-book desks where staff signed in and out as they carried out their shifts.

The first impression on entering the room was a feeling of calm – a susurrus of voices from the operators and a mysterious random snapping sound reminiscent of electrical arcs.

The toll board itself was a long L-shaped structure, about 1.5 metres high stretched around two walls of the room with service access from behind. On the inner side of the L, the board consisted of a narrow shelf, with kickboard and footrests below and 19 inch rack panels of jacks and lamps above.

It was a typical Western Electric cord board, with about a dozen pairs of cords resting in their holders at the back of the shelf in front of the operator; each pair of cords having an electro-mechanical meter and associated key switches in front of it.

Each operator position had a pair of headset jacks in the front face of the shelf, one jack for the operator, the other for the supervisor to plug in a headset for monitoring purposes. The board was designed for right-handed staff, with the chrome-plated telephone dial on the right-hand side of the shelf.

On the shelf directly in front of the operator, was a narrow strip of glass under which dialling codes and other notices nestled on a felt backing. As calls were processed, a toll ticket was prepared showing calling number, called number, number of meter pulses recorded during the call and other pertinent information. The toll tickets were held in place in front of the cords carrying the call by small spring loaded clips – and these were the source of the curious “electrical arcing” sound as the clips snapped against the glass while tickets were moved about.

One thing that often surprised visitors was the absence of jangling bells and buzzers to announce incoming calls. The toll board was staffed 24 hours per day, so such notifications certainly weren’t needed during the day with several operators on-hand to answer incoming calls as they were indicated by a glowing lamp. There was a facility to activate a “night alarm” but this was only used late at night when call flows were very light and there might only be only one or two operators on duty.

The only call buzzer which would sound during the day was the one which indicated an incoming emergency call from a subscriber who’d dialled 111. The call would be indicated by a glowing red lamp on the panels in front of the operators, and a large red lamp located at the far end of the toll board.

Operators were always prompt at plugging into one of these calls with the standard “Operator. What Service?” In the late 1970s, there were only three services to choose from – Fire, Police or Ambulance – and each maintained its own operations and despatch centre in Gisborne. In most cases the operator was able to quickly determine the service required and connect the call to the emergency service despatcher via the other cord of the pair.

On doing so, it was a routine requirement that the on-duty supervisor sat across the call briefly to make sure that all was in order. At the completion of the call, an associated lamp would light to show that one or both of the parties had “hung-up.” The operator would then re-join the circuit with the familiar “working? working?” query to ensure that the call had been completed.

If any problem had occurred during the call, or a panicked caller had not been able to give an address to the despatcher, or the call was malicious, the calling party’s phone line was held until the operator removed the associated call cord, and further calls could not be made. If the caller picked up their receiver again, the operator could see this from the lamps and attempt to obtain further details from them.

If this failed, a quick call would be made by the supervisor to the switchroom downstairs and a 111 call trace would be initiated. In those electro-mechanical days, a call trace involved removing cans from switches, dropping links to hold the switching trains and tracing the call backwards through trunking sheets. The task was usually allocated to one of the more experienced technicians, and it was best to take notes.

A call-trace within the main exchange usually took 5-15 minutes but, if the call had been made from a minor exchange, the entire switching train would need to be held up until a technician could reach the exchange that originated the call and trace it to its source.

Often these call traces were required because a caller had been too panicked to provide sufficient details for the emergency service to despatch assistance. However, there were occasions when malicious calls and other sinister circumstances necessitated a 111 call trace, and the technician’s notes could be used as court evidence – though this was rare.

During my time working on the toll board, I was treated to a few occasions where a battle-hardened operator took charge in trying to calm and focus a panicked caller while trying to deal with an emergency. It was impressive to hear, and the usually quiet environment of the toll room became even quieter as adjacent operators followed the “conversation.”

Whilst technicians maintained and tested the toll boards and associated equipment, the day-to-day operation was very clearly the domain of the toll manager, supervisors and operators. Entering onto their patch involved a few protocols to ensure that the smooth running of the operation was not affected.

A part of the regular maintenance checks of the country exchanges involved the routine testing of circuits back to the Gisborne CAX (Central Automatic Exchange) including toll and 111 trunks. The techs visiting the country exchange would book some testing time, and one of us rostered on in the Gisborne switchroom would pop up to the toll board with a headset to answer their test calls.

On arrival in the toll room, we’d report to the duty supervisor, advise them about the testing to be done, and we’d be allocated an operator position. A canny supervisor would allocate the less-experienced technicians to a position near an experienced operator if we were testing incoming 111 calls, just in case we got a real call. Testing could commence once the supervisor had tapped each operator on the shoulder and told them we were “testing local 111’s” or “testing incoming 111’s” from country exchanges.

Even so, it was wise to be quick at answering the test calls with a brisk “Technician, what service?” as the operators would not allow any drop in their standards by leaving an emergency call unanswered for more than a second or two. The chances of encountering a real emergency call while testing 111 calls from country exchanges was minimal, as the process only took 5 or so minutes. However, when testing all the options from Gisborne’s 11,000 line exchange, the process took much longer and there were occasions when technicians ended up answering real calls for help.

On those occasions, an experienced operator would take over the call and process it according to proper procedure.

Leave a Reply