In Feb 1975 there was a very bad fire in a big Central Office building
in New York City. Twelve local exchanges and numerous tandem switches
were knocked out.
The Bell System mobilized and worked around the clock to get service
restored. Some burnt panel switchgear was removed and replaced with
new ESS switches airlifted in. Other gear was cleaned one contact at
a time with Q-Tips. Some calls were rerouted to other offices.
Service was restored quickly and known as the "Miracle on Second
I wonder: Suppose a fire like that happened today: Would it take
longer or shorter to restore service in today's world?
On the plus side, I think ESS would make things a lot simpler. No
contact cleaning, just replace the "boxes" with new ones. Some
traffic could be rerouted as was done before by ESS reprogramming.
Hopefully CO buildings today have non destructive (ie Halon) fire
But there are some negatives:
Without the big Bell System in existence, could new "boxes" be found
quickly and deployed? Western Electric had them ready (for another
location). Do today's switch makers carry such inventory being
they're very expensive?
Secondly, New York Telephone brought in craftsmen from other
companies. Could that happen today with staff size so much lower and
the company fractured?
Third, some work involved resplicing cables in the cable vault. Small
space limited the number of people who could work at one time, despite
laying plank catwalks to "double up". I think in a fire such splicing
would still need to be done and take just as long, possibly longer if
skilled crews weren't available (see above).
Comments? (Public replies, please)
P.S. A read of the New York Times of that incident disclosed the
tenor of troubled NYC at that time. Merchants and residents without
phones were more worried about security -- being able to call police
-- than they were about lost business; that theme was repeated many
times in interviews. Many businesses and people had burglar alarms
that were now inoperative without a phone line.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: February 27, 1975 was the date. And it
was a very bad fire, with service out for a long time afterward. There
have been other very severe fires in their history, in the summer of
1945 in the Chicago area, in one of the suburbs was one of the
first. This Digest was not around at the time, nor at the time of the
1960's fire in Richmond, Indiana. However, Richmond, IN and New York
City in 1975 are both reported in detail in our archives in the
section on history. Then on Mother's Day, in May, 1988 was the major
fire in Hinsdale, IL, which like New York City, took place on 'only'
one building but affected a _large_ number of phones and exchanges and
services in the Chicago area and throughout Illinois and Indiana. So
telco tends to 'play the averages' on things like this, with fires or
other disasters (New Orleans and Katrina for example) occuring about
once every fifteen or twenty years. Although it is questionable if
telco could have done very much to protect their property and services
in the Katrina disaster, they most certainly could have mitigated
their losses and the disruption in service in Manhattan in 1975 and
again in Hinsdale in 1988.
But in the case of Hinsdale at least, telco said at the time and still
insists even today that it is not 'cost effective' for them to take
steps in advance to mitigate their losses when these things
happen. So, they do nothing about it, and deal with it when it
happens. So, the difference between February, 1975 and February, 1965
was ten years; May, 1988 was another thirteen years. Add twelve years
for the cable fire in St. Louis in January, 1990, and about fifteen
years for New Orleans and Katrina; although both New Orleans and St.
Louis were not really anything telco could do 'much about'. So Lisa,
it is not a question of 'if it happens again' so much as it is a
question of 'when it happens again' as it will, I am sure, given the
facts of life these days, with 'terrorists' all around us and your
heroine, Ma Bell telling us she will deal with it if it happens, but
it is not 'cost-effective' to worry about it before that time. She
still says 'if'; most of us say 'when'. Don't worry, when it does and
after it has been dealt with, Ma Bell will put out another very self-
congratulatory book like they did in the summer of 1975 with a cover
picture of a plume of thick, black smoke and a Brave, Couragous
Fireman and tell us how They Knew What Was Best in getting service
restored a month or two later. What they will not tell you until they
get sued with their backs up against the wall will be as it was in
Hinsdale: the first alarms went off in _Springfield, IL_ (about two
hundred miles south of Chicago and were ignored by the on-duty staff
for about an hour until _they_ decided to make inquiry from someone
in the Chicago area. PAT]