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SITE UNSEEN: The Home of NCAR's Smooth Operators

Photo of the NCAR telephone operators
NCAR's voices to the world: Marlene Brown, Judy Green, and Dolores Boyd. (Photo by Curt Zukosky.)

In this new column, Staff Notes takes you where few staff have gone before, those out-of-the-way corners where the gears of our institution turn. This month we visit the telephone operators' area, located at the foot of the stairwell just south of the Mesa Lab lobby.

"We don't predict the weather. We study it." Judy Green gives this succinct explanation of NCAR's mission like a pro, as well she should. It is the standard answer to one of the most common questions encountered by NCAR's three telephone operators.

Judy (oft confused with Judy Brown, Bob Serafin's secretary) is the senior member of the operator crew, with her 16 years of experience here. However, the entire group has plenty of experience handling with tact, finesse, and good cheer the hundreds of calls that pour into NCAR daily.

Each workday, Judy--our only full-time operator--is joined by either Dolores Boyd or Marlene Brown, who share the other full-time position. (Long-time operator Marguerite Adkisson died in August.) Dolores works Mondays and Tuesdays, Marlene on Thursdays and Fridays, and the two alternate on Wednesdays. It's a congenial arrangement, giving them both time for life beyond the switchboard. Not that their NCAR life is a chore: all three women insist they like their work. "It's so relaxed. I enjoy talking to all of the different people," says Judy, a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Dolores, who has been with the group off and on since 1976, is an expatriate Texan, and Marlene grew up in Arvada and Longmont, moving from Finance to join the group earlier this year.

The operators' lair is a windowless, semicircular, paneled room, with the women facing a counter that runs into the center of the room. For years, this room held the cord-based switchboard on which the operators inserted and removed plugs, answering each and every call and routing it through to its respective line. Only in 1984 was this comparatively ancient technology replaced by ROLM, the current switching mechanism that permits PhoneMail and other niceties (or aggravations, depending on your perspective).

While on the job, Judy, Dolores, and Marlene each can get up to 10 calls at one time. Typically, they juggle 5 to 10 calls a minute while performing other duties; on a given day, they may each greet anywhere from 200 to 600 callers. The most frequently sought folks, according to Judy: Mickey Glantz, Bob Serafin, Rick Anthes, and Human Resources, in no particular order. Mickey, head of the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, gets many calls because his internationally networked group corresponds with colleagues around the globe. Judy says the end of the cold war has made our life easier in at least one way: "It was difficult trying to connect to Russia before we could dial direct." These days, UCAR incurs $15,000 or so in long-distance charges each month.

Most callers know what or whom they need, but Judy notes that there are plenty of others who would throw the usually unflappable Patty Prompter into a tizzy. "People call when they have a new barometer and want to know how to set it. Lots of people call during windstorms. People ask for extended forecasts for outdoor wedding receptions." On the darker side, "One time a caller threatened a scientist and his family." A more common circumstance: people often call NCAR when they need NOAA, or vice versa. The operators keep a NOAA directory handy for just such cases. (In case you've ever wondered, UCAR holds all of the 497-1000 and -8000 exchanges and has most of the -2000s on reserve. The -3000 through -6000 numbers belong to NOAA.)

If there's one thing people in-house can do to make the operators' job easier, it's skipping initials and nicknames. "When you leave your name with someone for a return call, please don't ask them to call 'Jim' or 'Pat' or 'Liz' at 497-1000," pleads Judy. "Either leave your full name and 497-1000 or your first name and extension. Otherwise we won't know which Jim or Pat or Liz is being called." Along with using the printed white, yellow, and blue pages of the UCAR directory, staff who are on line can avail themselves of the electronic directory that provides phone numbers and e-mail addresses; it's found inside Gopher or by telnet at ncar.ucar.edu, with the login "email."

The operators' sunny dispositions bring lots of reciprocal friendliness. "Walt Roberts would call us just to say hi and ask how we were doing," recalls Judy. "Mickey Glantz sends us goodies and postcards from all over the world." Any staff who want to see the operators in action are welcome to drop by their space. Expect equal helpings of interruptions and smiles. --BH


Photo of Teresa Shibao
The woman behind the women at NCAR's switchboard is Teresa Shibao, the electrician responsible for keeping our phone system in working order. "I worked myself into this position; we used contractors before," says Teresa. She keeps in close contact with SCD when wiring for office renovations, such as the recent work at the Mesa Lab's east towers, since multiple data streams share the same communications plate and wiring channels. PhoneMail, introduced several years ago, is the biggest change during Teresa's tenure. "The secretaries I know love it," says Teresa, "and it's wonderful for me, since I rove all over the place." Merging technologies are on the horizon, Teresa believes: "From your computer you'll be able to answer PhoneMail, send faxes, and do conference calls with sound and pictures." Still, Teresa adds, "Phones will never go away. People like to talk to each other." Even cyber- savvy kids, she feels, will always want some "real-time conversation."

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:20:53 MST 2000