It might be Code Red in the 310 dialing area this month when the state's first area code overlay goes into full effect on L.A.'s Westside.

Beginning July 26, all calls made within the 310 territory must include the area code with the number or the calls will not go through. Starting on August 26, all new numbers assigned in the 310 territory will get the new 424 area code.

The approaching deadline has caught many business owners, professionals and residents off guard, especially those with automatic dialing machines that must be reprogrammed or replaced. These include internal business systems, speed-dialing equipment, call-forwarding devices, computers, alarm systems, cell phones and any other piece of equipment that stores a phone number that can be used for automatic dialing.

"Almost nobody I'm talking to is aware of this. People are going to wake up on July 27 and find their phones or speed dialers will not work," said Steve Diels, who runs a call center in Redondo Beach.

Hardest hit are likely to be owners or operators of facilities with secured-entry systems that rely on visitors dialing an entry code that speed dials a number. Many of these machines must be reprogrammed, while some older ones that can only store seven digits must be replaced entirely.

This has kept many telecommunications providers, security companies, property management firms and others busy in recent weeks and months, preparing for the changeover.

The Los Angeles district office of Wichita, Kan.-based Protection One Inc. has been contacting about 300 of its customers with older alarm systems to schedule appointments to reprogram their equipment.

District manager Richard Bishop said his technicians have reprogrammed all but a handful of the alarms. "The actual reprogramming is a fairly simple task; it's the scheduling of all those appointments that really takes the time," he said.

Things get a little more complicated and expensive when the automatic dialing equipment cannot handle the 11 digits (1 + area code + number) that will be required as of July 26.

For an entry system dialer for a small apartment or condominium complex, it typically costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to replace the equipment. Replacing systems in larger buildings that hold dozens of numbers can easily top $10,000.

That's the situation that Los Angeles-based Sunset Telecommunications is facing with one of its customers. "This customer has an old gated entry system that only does seven-digit dialing," said Katie Mantis, an account manager at Sunset Telecommunications. "We've got a proposal out to them now to replace the entire system."

Long time coming
Reprogramming the equipment, while not nearly as expensive, can still cost business owners plenty of time and inconvenience. For large automatic dialing systems, whether in gated entry complexes or inside commercial office buildings, it can take a day or more to add the area code to all the numbers. That will be complicated by the expected deluge of calls to telecommunications and information technology consultants that will hit in the days just before and just after the deadline.

"They will call us afterwards, when their equipment doesn't work," Mantis said of many of her company's customers.

Of course, for those who have been paying attention, there's been plenty of warning that this day would come. As far back as 10 years ago, state regulators looked at the tremendous proliferation of cell phone numbers, modems, automatic dialers and other uses for phone numbers in the 310 area code and proposed splitting the region into two geographic area codes.

After protest from Westside businesses and residents upset over frequent area code changes, the state Public Utilities Commission came back in 1999 with the proposal for an overlay, under which all existing numbers would retain the 310 area code but all new numbers would be issued under the 424 area code.

But that did not quell the protests from local chambers of commerce, community activists and Westside legislators. Instead, opponents argued that the creation of another area code was unnecessary because they claimed telecommunications companies were hoarding tens of thousands of unused numbers for "future growth." The PUC relented and held off on imposing a new area code; instead, the agency required phone companies to release more of their numbers for use.

That move bought another five years, during which time some property managers decided to make the switch in their secured entry systems.

"We realized that even though it wasn't going to hit right away, we should change out our older dialers anyway," said Irma Vargas, co-owner of RST & Associates, a local property management firm.

Two years ago, the PUC restarted the area code overlay proposal, claiming that even with the conservation measures, the area code was still running out of numbers. While the proposal still met with opposition, the protests were milder. Early last year, the PUC adopted the area code overlay, the state's first. Starting last December, 11-digit dialing was permissible within the 310 area code; as of July 26, it will be mandatory. Calls that don't include the area code will not go through.

Widespread concerns
Overlays have been adopted in other states, including New Jersey, Michigan and Florida. However, several proposed overlays have been put on hold or cancelled because of local opposition, including ones in Illinois and Maryland.

Here in L.A. County, while the biggest impact is likely to be on security systems and other vital equipment that use automatic dialers, virtually everybody will experience some impact from reprogramming personal cell phones to ensuring customers have and know companies' complete 11-digit number. "This training will be a big issue, especially where there are sales forces involved," said Stephen Rose, president of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce.

Jeff Haas, owner of Haas Entertainment, a home theater installer in Culver City said he is worried the change will cause a loss in business.

"If you just get a seven digit phone number to call back, you won't know whether it's 310 or 424 and you will have to try each one to see which works. That will discourage many people from calling back," he said

Issues like this are supposed to be dealt with as part of an education campaign from state officials and the phone companies. Indeed, according to PUC spokeswoman Susan Caruthers, phone carriers are authorized to spend $400,000 for education. That includes sending out at least two notices in billing statements to every customer and radio and television commercials.

The notices did go out, but apparently, they were ignored or set aside by many business owners.

This month has also seen the launch of a limited campaign over the airwaves to raise awareness of the area code change. But again, the message does not seem to have registered. Several local business owners and chambers of commerce contacted for this story were unaware of the impending deadline.

"My biggest concern is that I'm afraid nobody knows about it. People will wake up one day and find their equipment won't work and then will wonder why," said Marna Smeltzner, president and chief executive of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce.

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