Saturday, November 27, 2021
Nov. 27, 2021

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10-digit dialing begins in Eastern Washington today

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SPOKANE — Anyone needing a visual aid for why it’s necessary to tack on a three-digit area code for calls in Eastern Washington on Sunday would do well to take a trip to the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum.

There, behind a pane of glass, you can see the moving battery of switches and hear the clacking of a Strowger switch, an automated method of connecting speakers on two ends of a phone call that dates back to the late 19th century. Later, banks of the switches would be used in central offices to connect multiple calls at a time, the operators unaware of the conversations routed through the building.

“When John Kennedy was shot, this place would go wild,” said Jim McCall, who’s worked on maintaining the piece for the museum that was originally dedicated in 1987. “They would know something big happened, but they wouldn’t know what happened.”

The first three digits of a seven-digit phone number are what is known as a “central office code.” These codes used to direct calls to a specific exchange in a city. For example, in the city of Spokane, there was an exchange known as “Main” that was centered downtown. The first two letters of Main correspond to the 6 and 2 keys on a modern phone, so when you call most departments at city hall today, you’ll begin with a 6 and 2 (after the area code, of course).

Starting today, dialing 988 will direct callers to the national suicide prevention hotline. That means regions of the country that have “central office codes” of 988 need to begin dialing the area code first to avoid being directed to the hotline. In Eastern Washington, the 988 central office code is used for phone numbers in a portion of Lincoln County.

Many of the visitors to the Spokane Valley museum are grade schoolers, said Jayne Singleton, director of the museum. They’ve never seen the devices hooked up to the switch machine, or if they have, only sparingly.

“They say, ‘My grandparents have one of these in their basement,’ “ said Singleton, motioning to the rotary phone that makes the calls on the museum’s display.

On either side of the switching machine are examples of the hand-operated switchboard, the way calls were routed in the early days of phone service in Spokane. The first was installed in 1886 and featured 50 lines. It was housed in the first version of the Hyde building, a three-story structure at Riverside Avenue and Wall Street. It burned in the Great Spokane Fire of 1889.

Thomas Elsom is remembered as the man who installed the first telephone, and the Spokane Falls Telegraph Co. included partner William S. Norman, who bought the equipment from Colfax newspaper publisher Charles Hopkins. Norman would later form the Washington Water Power Co., now Avista Corp., and purchased the Hotel Spokane in 1893.

Early subscribers, including the 35 inaugural customers of the phone service, didn’t exhibit much confidence in the new technology, according to an account in a 1933 edition of The Spokesman-Review commemorating the early days of the city’s phone service.

Sam Glasgow, one of the partners in Centennial flour mills, called the switchboard “frisky,” saying it “wouldn’t work for a while and looked like a large toy.”

It didn’t take long for the new technology to catch on in a city powered largely by the railroads, which required quick communication for efficient service. The city received its first pay telephone in 1892, and by 1926, there were 35,474 telephone subscribers in the city, according to accounts in The Spokane Daily Chronicle.

In those days, a phone number included letters and numbers, the letters indicative of the exchange handling the calls for a certain location. The building housing the “Walnut” exchange office, for instance, was located just outside the current site of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. That explains the first two numbers of the museum’s phone number, which is 922-4570. (The 9 corresponds with “W” and the 2 with “A”.)

Spokane and Eastern Washington did not receive the 509 area code until 1957. That prefix became important five years later when the direct-dialing long-distance phone system was implemented, eliminating the need to use an operator with every long-distance call.

Omar Lofgren, district manager of the Pacific Northwest Bell phone company, explained how this would work to a confused public in a Jan. 15, 1962 story in The Spokane Chronicle.

“Since no two telephone numbers are duplicated within code areas, Spokanites dialing a number in another eastern Washington city won’t have to use a code number,” Lofgren told the paper.

And so it’s been for nearly 60 years.

But adopting the 988 code, which can be dialed 24/7 by users seeking suicide prevention services, will now necessitate phone users in Eastern Washington and areas of 36 other states to dial the full 10-digit number to make sure their call will be connected.

The FCC, in its report on the switch issued in July 2020, indicated the three-digit code was the least disruptive choice to provide an essential service to the public.

“Moreover, the cost-benefit analysis conducted by FCC Staff concluded that the lifesaving benefits of designating 988 for such a hotline are likely to outweigh the costs of implementation,” the report reads.

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