'Hello, operator? Get someone to fix my heater!'

"Hello. This is Operator 15. May I help you?" This phone operator doesn't work for "Ma Bell." Rather, she is one of 28 operators with New York City's Central Complaint Bureau. And the lines are ringing constantly with calls from people seeking emergency assistance to get heat and hot water restored.

Across the frozen Northeast and parts of the Midwest, officials are stepping up efforts to respond to emergency calls, beefing up manpower, and using computers to try to cut down on the time it takes for a complaint to be processed and help made available.

And this winter, as temperatures plummet to record lows in some cities, the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (FDAA) is also vastly increasing its support of localities with a virtual "snow storm" of leaflets and radio announcements under the official mantle "Winter Survival Campaign."

Last winter, the FDAA sent out around 200,000 leaflets to fire departments, newspapers, and other public service-oriented organizations on what people can do in various winter emergency situations. This year, the agency sent out more than 5 million leaflets. And "for the first time ever, we asked radio stations to participate in our campaign," says Robert Blair, its national director. Organizations in nearly 3,000 communities are participating, he says. Although nearly that many communities were involved in the survival campaign last winter, "the depth of commitment is much, much greater this year," Mr. Blair continues.

The information being distributed focuses on three basic areas: what to do and not to do when heat and hot water fail; fire safety in the home; and how to survive if you're on the road and your car breaks down.

For example, the FDAA warns that if the heat in a home or apartment fails, never gather around a stove fueled by natural gas -- with the door of the kitchen closed. The reason: Carbon monoxide can build up in a closed area during prolonged usage.

The most persistent winter-related problem to date in New York has been boiler failures. By mid-afternoon Jan. 3 alone, the complaint bureau had received more than 4,000 calls asking for help to restore heat and hot water.

On Jan. 5, Mayor Edward I. Koch ordered "immediate overtime pay" to put more housing inspectors in the field. He also announced the emergency allocation of hot water complaints.

In Boston, the city's housing inspection department is being flooded with calls for emergency help. But the response time appears to be much swifter there than in New York, according to Fred Sexton, the department's assistant director.

Robert McNabb, district director of the Boston Housing Authority, which runs about 15,000 units in subsidized low- and middle- income apartment buildings, says response time is usually no more than a matter of hours for BHA units as opposed to a matter of days in many New York apartments. One reason for this, he explains, is the intensive maintenance done on boilers in the summer.

In Chicago, a spokesman for the city's housing authority, responsible for 40, 000 low-income apartment units, reports that complaints about the lack of heat and hot water this winter have not been as numerous as last year. "A lot more service work was done on the boilers this summer than in past years," the spokesman explained.

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