Emergencies By Appointment, Please

My favourite shift when I worked in the Wellington Transmission Centre in the 1980s was noon to six – well the weekday part, anyway. At the weekends it could be a bit grim coming in for a 7-3 Saturday and doing a VFT (voice frequency telegraph system) line-up – especially if it was a TR1104 telegraph system and the trainee hadn’t been too hot at tuning the relays!

During the week the noon to sixer ran the console in the Test Room. The console was a rather large affair, being a custom-made telephone console and wire-photo switch rolled into one. Ah yes. In them thar days, newspapers had to book wire-photo circuits so that they could transmit their footie and other snaps out to other newspapers. To reduce cost, they made use of the multi-port wire-photo system to transmit the wire photo to say Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Christchurch and other papers all at once. We are talking about pre-facsimile and pre-email days here.

The newspaper’s wire-photo machine had a rotating drum to which the subject photograph was attached. The operator could talk using the attached handset to the receiving papers via the wire photo circuit to co-ordinate the transmission and then they all switched over to receive while the transmitting newspaper started scanning the photo. Exasperation occurred if the trainee at one of the regional papers leapt back onto the phone circuit while the photo was being transmitted and announced he hadn’t done this or that. All the receiving machines would get a glitch, and the whole sequence had to be started again. From memory it took about 5 minutes to transmit a standard black & white photo.

Boy some of those press hacks could be demanding, too. They wanted the service, and they wanted it now! Booking the circuit via the toll room just didn’t cut the mustard. Once booked, one of the operators would scoot down in the lift to the second floor with a completed form, and away we’d go. Bandwidth was expensive in those days, and circuits at regional stations were manually patched from the network to the local newspaper office. A bit of a bind if the Gisborne Herald booked to receive a wire-photo at the last minute and we couldn’t get hold of the call-out Transmission tech up there to do some patching.

At Wellington Trans the console operator answered all the inward calls to the transmission centre from the dedicated ’98 lines, local trunks and orderwires. Orderwires were hard-wired voice circuits that connected transmission stations within each region to their zone centre, and zone centres to each other.

By selecting an order wire to, say, Auckland, I could speak directly to a counterpart in Auckland Transmission – the same applied to Napier, Christchurch, Palmerston North and many other stations. At a time of migration from step-by-step to crossbar switching and extensive network upgrade, the orderwires were very handy as they worked in spite of a local exchange failure or overload. They could also be patched to monitors or staff in the field and conferenced together to allow collaboration during fault investigations.

To the left of the telephone console were the station’s two alarm consoles which displayed system failures. To the right was the microwave network alarm console.

From this position, and the calls passing through his hands, the console operator had a very good overall picture of what was happening on the network at any one time. A system outage could be identified, and appropriate staff alerted.

Walking in for a noon-to-six shift was exciting. As the outer door to the landing clattered shut behind me, I’d listen for the sound coming from the Test Room. There would usually be the “pip-pip-pip-pip-pip-pip…” of the telephone console as calls were coming in, and sometimes the “ding-dong …. ding-dong …. ding-dong….” of the Toll Test Board chimes as calls were passed to technicians who were testing data and other circuits.

If I could hear these sounds and the “ka-doing, ka-doing, ka-doing….” of the station alarms as I reached for the swing-door, I knew something was up. There was an outage somewhere on the network – a cable had been cut, a device had failed, someone had plugged something in at the wrong place – it was all go.

Finally rounding the end of the consoles to take a look at the alarm displays would confirm the diagnosis. The old Creed 75 teleprinter motor would be whining away, red and orange lights would be glowing steadily, and the console operator from the 7-1 shift would be on the PA system announcing calls and events: “TER! Auckland linelink one is down.” “Anyone in VFT?” “Auckland 2 for TER.” “Ah Leg 953.” “Palmy 1 for you Bam.” “Anyone know where the Gaffer is?” “Hamilton orderwire for you Torty.” With a mobile workforce the announced calls could be picked up from dozens of locations on both floors, and many people were paged by their nicknames.

Bustle and noise would be the order of the day. The fault would be localised, a solution found and the Network Management Centre would issue instructions via the omnibus teleprinter network on ameliorative action. Slowly the red lights would go out, the noise levels would drop, and calm would return.

Seeing the action on the stock exchange floor when the market crashed in 1987, I was reminded of the transmission centre during a large outage. To an outsider it looked like pandemonium and noise, to the participants, it was controlled chaos.

And speaking of chaos. In the bottom drawer to the console operator’s left was a very special phone. Not red like the one to the Kremlin. Black. Bakelite black with a coffee grinder handle where the dial should be. In the event that “the big one” hit Wellington and everything failed, this manual phone would allow us to talk to Area um, Services in Courtenay Place about it. I saw it tested twice. Once when an inspection discovered that we had tucked it away in a drawer (still wired up) and it had to be brought back out and rewired sitting on TOP of the desk. (tsk, tsk)

And again on a quiet day, when on a whim in a quiet moment a colleague decided to turn the handle and listen. It was answered and the voice that thundered down the line didn’t need the phone for us to hear it… We should have rung the normal number first to tell them we were going to test the emergency phone! For days the thunder boomed; working its way down through the layers of bureaucracy to reprimand the impertinence!

Emergencies by appointment, please.

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