Thursday, July 23, 2009

Help, the Old-Fashioned Way

The emergency help system recently went down in our county for mysterious reasons. While 911 was useless, we were advised to dial a ten-digit number if we needed cops, firemen, or medics.

In the 1940s, and perhaps even earlier, you could get help in my hometown without knowing a single digit. You just picked up the phone and when asked “number please” told the operator what the problem was. She turned on two yellow lights at opposite ends of “Main Street” (Wisconsin Avenue). One was attached to the corner of Bradley Bank; the other was hung on Allen’s Grocery.

The lights were a signal to the police. They contacted the switchboard operator who told them what was needed and where. They then dispatched themselves or whoever else was required to handle the emergency. If a blaze was the problem, a siren heard throughout the city alerted volunteer firefighters.

It sounds like a Rube Goldberg operation now, but the small-town system worked, and taxpayers didn’t have to pay for three shifts of dispatchers and a batch of sophisticated electronic gear.

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