Another question about telephones in 1991
November 24, 2019 4:45 PM   Subscribe

The character in my novel is calling the telephone of someone whose house has just burned down. This is in the immediate aftermath of the massive 1991 Oakland/Berkeley fire. Would she just get endless ringing? Or would she get some other sort of message? I'm actually hoping for the former, so unless that's patently wrong, it's what I want to go with.
posted by swheatie to Technology (17 answers total)
Everyone had an answering machine in 1991. An actual machine with a cassette tape, not voice mail. So if the answering machine burned up, she'd get endless ringing, and that would show something was wrong.
posted by nantucket at 4:47 PM on November 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

If an individual house burned down, yes, a caller would just hear ringing. But in a fire that affected a wide area, they might have gotten a reorder tone, also known as a circuits busy signal. It is faster than a regular busy signal.
posted by jkent at 4:53 PM on November 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

I know the "reorder tone" by the name "busy signal". I've never heard anyone call that a "reorder tone". But definitely I'm not enough of a phone phreak to notice that's it's faster than a busy signal. I think a non-phone tech person would call that a busy signal.
posted by smcameron at 5:05 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes there is sometimes an "All circuits are busy now" recorded voice you might get.
posted by jessamyn at 5:05 PM on November 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

And I know that reorder tone as a "fast busy" which might help when Googling.
posted by jessamyn at 5:05 PM on November 24, 2019 [14 favorites]

If it's in the situation where your character would get the fast busy signal, keep in mind that in 1991 she is very familiar with the busy signal sound so it would probably be obvious that it was different or wrong somehow though without a recording she may not know why.

But just one or two houses? Definitely, the circuit would just ring and ring.
posted by zinful at 5:21 PM on November 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah if you want ringing that’s totally acceptable, unless phone technology is a big part of your story; which it clearly isn’t. Busy signal or fast busy/reorder are also plausible.

My family didn’t have an answering machine in 1991 btw, so that’s a deadly blow against the “Everyone had a machine” claim.

Write what you know, and forget about minor details like this which are 100% plausible the way that works best for the narrative.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:38 PM on November 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

If the telephone wiring in the house has melted, there's a good chance it will have shorted. (bare copper with no plastic insulation to keep the conductors separated.) This would be the equivalent of an "off hook" condition, in which case the caller would get a normal busy signal like the line is in use. If the wires are completely vaporized or have physically pulled loose due to the structure collapsing creating an open circuit, you'd get the endless ring.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:17 PM on November 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

I would vote for either fast busy (neighborhood circuit fried) or regular busy (damage at the house level registering as an open line). I actually had an ongoing problem in late '91/early '92 where my number would signal busy until I unplugged all the phone lines in my apartment and waited 5 minutes before plugging them back in, and eventually at my dad's suggestion I replaced all the phones and phone cables and it never happened again.

There would be the off chance of a never-ending ring without answering machine, though. Telephone lines were weird.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:31 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everyone had an answering machine in 1991.

Maybe this was regional or a class thing, but many (maybe even most) people I knew in 1991 did not have answering machines. (Within just a few years, though, most did, either the tape machines or the voicemail system from the phone company when that was available.) So you either got a busy signal (ie, if they were on the line), it would ring ~3 times and the answering machine would pick up, or it would just ring endlessly.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:41 PM on November 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can answer from personal experience. When I called someone whose house had burned down the day before in the Oakland Hills fire, I got endless ringing.
posted by drdanger at 6:48 PM on November 24, 2019 [41 favorites]

Telephone switching stations(central office) may have been burned or impaired, and results might be unpredictable.

drdanger, fairly chilling response. I hope they are okay, to the extent that the new normal can be okay.
posted by theora55 at 7:39 PM on November 24, 2019

For a "regular" telephone line delivered by conventional means, and if only the one house has burned down, I can confirm that what Larry David Syndrome said is correct. The only two choices are endless ringing or standard busy signal, for the reasons he describes.

If the house's phone service was delivered over some sort of a pair gain system (the customer end of which was sometimes, but not always, physically attached to the customer's house), additional options including reorder/fast-busy or some sort of recording may have been possible if the on-premise pair gain equipment was destroyed. I do not think that the customer-premise-involved type of pair gain system was in widespread use in the US in 1991 though.

If a wider area burned, destroying telephone company facilities such as central offices or SLCs/remote concentrators, then reorders/fast-busies or recordings would have, I think, been fairly likely.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:17 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I lived in California at this time and remember after these fires and after the 1989 earthquake, frequently getting "All circuits busy," because everyone was calling to find out if their loved ones were okay at the same time.
posted by tangosnail at 12:22 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

After the 1989 quake, I know that the phone companies were prioritizing calls out, and people trying to call us got the "all circuits are busy" response. That was action taken at the system level, not individual houses.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:45 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: drdanger for the win. I hope your friends recovered without too much misery.

Based on the comments, I think any of the options above would be plausible. Thanks, everyone.
posted by swheatie at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2019

This is a text file from GEnie message boards' "Telecom Digest" in 1991 talking about contemporary phone technology that begins with a post about trying to reach people in the aftermath of the Oakland fire.

The answer is that you may have initially gotten an endless ring, then a fast busy, then various intercept messages, including call forwarding, alternate numbers, and message center mailboxes. If you really want to get into the weeds about contemporary phone switching technology, well, there's a lot in there.
posted by klangklangston at 3:22 PM on November 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

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