By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
7:50 PM EST, February 3, 2014
It had been years since Tammy Bresnahan dialed 936-1212 to hear the Baltimore-area weather forecast, and when she called it again last month, she was surprised to learn the once-popular hot line had been disconnected.
"The weather's been kind of unpredictable lately," said the 54-year-old advocacy director for AARP Maryland. "I needed someone to tell me what's going to happen, when it's going to happen and how it's going to happen."
But Bresnahan can take heart that the beloved service once considered an anachronism is back. Three years after Verizon discontinued the weather line, a new telephone service again offers weather conditions and predictions for Baltimore and vicinity. A Washington, D.C., company has revived the service — though it can't be accessed via the number imprinted on so many Baltimoreans' brains.
Some of the same amateur meteorologists who recorded the forecast six or more times a day for decades are back at it, this time at 410-235-1212. A separate line that provided the correct time, down to the seconds, has not been revived, though the new weather line does offer the time before the forecast.
"There's so many ways to get weather now, the telephone weather line is pretty much a thing of the past, but there are many people who depended on that service and would still depend on that service," said Keith Allen, one of the meteorologists. "They don't have all this newfangled technology."
The telephone company's weather line had been in operation since the days of rotary phones in the 1930s, until Verizon discontinued the service in 2011. The service's original number was first known to Marylanders as WE-6-1212.
When the line was shut down, Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette called the weather and time phone services an "anachronism" given the myriad alternative sources of information, including radio, TV, the Internet and smartphones.
Verizon officials would not say how many people called the weather and time lines, but those behind the revival say volume reached as many as 200,000 calls per day in the 1980s and 1990s, even during normal weather. In the years before the lines were shut down, calls dropped to about 50,000 per day, they said.
Still, Washington resident Warren Miller, who owns a telephone technology company called Telecompute Corp., and a group of meteorologists sensed that the demand remains. Miller's company provides services operating 800 numbers, teleconferences and voice-over-internet-protocol phone systems.
Months after the weather line was shut down in both Baltimore and Washington, the company launched a new number in the nation's capital. It expanded to Baltimore last month, and it has plans for other cities around the country.
"Weather was something I was attracted to," Miller said.
So far, the lines are drawing 5,000 to 10,000 calls a day in Washington and a few hundred each day in Baltimore, organizers said. They offer some extra services on top of the brief summary of weather conditions and the five-day forecasts, including weather forecasts for anywhere else in the country, free wakeup calls, free directory assistance, sports scores, hotel and travel accommodations, and lottery results.
Miller plans to seek sponsors for the line, selling 15-second advertisements to play before the weather and giving callers the option to press a button and be connected to the advertiser, he said.
He sought to set the line up under the same 936 exchange, but Verizon officials told him it wasn't available. Arnette said Monday the line is included in a block of numbers used for landline services such as 311 nonemergency lines, and no numbers in the block can be reassigned as long as there are still customers who subscribe to services within it.
DC Weather Services, a group of meteorologists led by Allen, pushed Miller to set up the line and take turns calling a number to record the latest forecast and conditions.
"I decided I'd really love to do it again," said Sidney Secular, another meteorologist who helped record the messages for 28 years on the original weather line. "We're just doing it because we like to do it."
Organizers recognized that the competition has changed since the line's heyday. When it launched, only radio provided real-time forecast updates. Then television came along, followed by the Internet and cellphones. Even since the line shut down, the landscape has changed further — 40 percent of cellphone users had smartphones in 2011, a share that reached 65 percent last year, according to Nielsen.
With a smartphone, users can access not only detailed weather forecasts but radar maps showing current conditions where they are or anywhere in the world.
Still, there are those who are glad to see the weather line back.
Dr. Jack Zimmerman called the line frequently when he worked as a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Church Home and Hospital, he said. Now 87, the Roland Park Place resident has learned to use the Internet to check weather conditions but still would like the option of calling the line.
"The one place I can see where it would really be helpful is when the electricity is out, particularly when the electricity is out due to bad weather."
Charlestown Retirement Community resident Pat Kasuda would call the line anytime she was setting up a golfing tee time; and anytime the power went out, she called the time hot line to reset clocks.
"We have really missed it," she said.
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